When a person is found incapacitated and placed under a guardianship, the exercise of some or all of that person’s rights are exclusively delegated to the guardian. That is, those rights which the court finds the person (ward) unable to personally exercise can only be exercised by the guardian. Thus, when a ward takes an action which he or she has lost the right to take, that act is typically void ab initio and treated by the courts as if it never happened.
Recently, Florida’s Third District was called upon to review a trial court’s judgment invalidating a deed executed by a ward in Marcinkewicz v. Quattrochi, (3rd DCA 2016).
The facts in Marcinkewicz were as follows: The Ward’s son moved into her home in 2007. The son maintained that he had reached an understanding with his mother that she would leave the home to him upon her death in exchange for his agreeing to care for her. In 2009, the Ward moved into the home of her daughter and son-in-law. A year later, the Ward was declared incapacitated and her daughter became guardian of her person and property. Two years later, the guardianship over the Ward’s property was dissolved but a limited guardianship over her person remained. In 2013, the Ward visited her longtime attorney and executed a deed transferring her home to the son-in-law.
Upon receiving the deed, the son-in-law filed suit to eject the son from the property. The son counter-sued to invalidate the deed and for other relief. The trial court found that the Ward lacked capacity to execute the deed and that, as a result, the deed was void. The trial court further found that because the deed was void, the Ward still owned the property and the son had to vacate the property.
The Third District reversed the trial court’s finding that the deed was void but affirmed its ruling that the son had no rights in the property.
The appellate court began by noting that the validity of the document is presumed and that this presumption can only be overcome with “clear, strong and convincing evidence.” (quoting Espriella v. Delvalle, 844 So. 2d 674, 676 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003) (internal citations omitted). The appellate court noted that the trial court erred in assigning the burden of proving the deed’s validity to the son-in-law/grantee when it was the son who should have had to produce evidence in support of a finding that the Ward lacked capacity to execute the deed.
Because the son failed to produce any evidence that the Ward lacked capacity at the time she executed the deed, the trial court’s finding was without evidentiary support. Because the deed was valid, the son had no rights in the property, equitable or otherwise. Accordingly, the trial court’s order that the son vacate the premises was upheld.
Strangely, and while the opinion does not set forth which rights were delegated to the Guardian, courts have previously held that an adjudication of incapacity does shift the burden in a capacity challenge to the validity of a document. That is, if the maker executes the document after being adjudicated incapacitated, the document is typically presumed void for lack of capacity. See, e.g., In re Estate of Ziy, 223 So. 2d 42, 43 (Fla. 1969).