January 29, 2021

Oral Agreement or Written Agreement

A "hand-shake agreement" or oral contract is rarely advised.
While the law does enforce an oral contract, it is hardly ever a prudent decision. Countless probate lawsuits have arisen from situations when an agreement could have been memorialized but instead was agreed to orally. A recent partially published appellate decision involved an oral contract to transfer a cabin's ownership. In particular, the case involved a deceased married couple's interest in a cabin on leased federal land.  
Capra v. Capra, (2020) ____ CA4th _____. 
"In 1992, Frank Jr. and Thomas attempted to transfer the Forest Service permit to themselves and Lucille as trustees of the trust, but the Forest Service would not allow three names to be on the permit. The Forest Service would allow only an individual or a married couple to be named on the permit.

The three siblings decided it made sense for Thomas to be the trustee listed on the permit because Lucille was not living in California. Plaintiffs allege that Lucille and Frank Jr. "agreed to forego their rights to act as the representative on the Permit and allowed Thomas to be the representative Trustee named on the Permit." In October 1992, the Forest Service placed Thomas's name on the permit. The permit was renewed in 2008 in Thomas's name."

The sharing of the cabin unfortunately did not end well.

"In September 2015, Thomas declared that he owned the cabin and the permit exclusively, and that the plaintiffs had no right or interest in either. He asserted the right to deny anyone access to the cabin. He closed the Bank of America account and withdrew all its money, claiming it belonged to him. He changed the door locks and asserted exclusive control over all personal property at the cabin. He has not provided access to the cabin to plaintiffs, and in some instances, he has banned others from the property."

In an expected move, Thomas was sued by his siblings for taking the position that he owned the cabin exclusively. 

My reading of this case is that a written agreement should have been executed in 1992 which specified that even though only Thomas' name would appear on the lease, the cabin was effectively a tenants-in-common arrangement with each sibling owning a 1/3 interest. A written agreement would not have definitively prevented a lawsuit, but it would have definitely decreased the odds of one. An executed agreement would have (hopefully) specified the rights and obligations of each party. This would avoid the dreaded "he said, she said" scenario which invariably arises when a disagreement happens.