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In re Estate of Ziegler

August 31, 2010


APPEAL from the Superior Court of San Bernardino County. J. Michael Welch, Judge. Reversed with directions. (Super.Ct.No. SPASS5015).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richli, J.



The statute of limitations serves noble public policies. It "'promote[s] justice by preventing surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared.' [Citations.]" (Parra v. City and County of San Francisco (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 977, 998.) Its operation in particular cases, however, can be sadly inequitable.

This is just such a case. The equities in favor of claimant Richard H. LaQue could hardly be more compelling. LaQue and his wife provided food, care, and companionship to their neighbor, Paul Ziegler, when Ziegler was sick and alone. At first, they did so out of the goodness of their hearts. Eventually, however, a grateful Ziegler insisted on entering into a written agreement -- the validity of which is unquestioned -- that in consideration of continued care, LaQue would receive Ziegler's home upon Ziegler's death.

On the other hand, the equities in favor of appellant W.C. Cox and Company (Cox) are slim to none. Cox is a soulless*fn2 corporation in the business of locating missing heirs. It is acting as the attorney in fact for nine residents of Germany who claim to be Ziegler's heirs.

After Ziegler died without a will, LaQue simply moved into Ziegler's former home, unopposed. He did not see the need to file any claim in connection with Ziegler's estate until about a year and three weeks after Ziegler's death.

Alas for LaQue, Code of Civil Procedure section 366.3, subdivision (a) provides: "If a person has a claim that arises from a promise or agreement with a decedent to distribution from an estate or trust or under another instrument, . . . an action to enforce the claim to distribution may be commenced within one year after the date of death, and the limitations period that would have been applicable does not apply." (Italics added.)

The trial court held that LaQue's claim was not barred by the statute of limitations. Cox appeals.

LaQue argues that Code of Civil Procedure section 366.3 does not apply because the written agreement is not a promise to make a future distribution from Ziegler's estate; rather, it is a present promise to convey Ziegler's house, albeit one that could not have been performed until after Ziegler's death. We will conclude that this is a distinction without a difference. Accordingly, we will reverse.


Ziegler was a retired school teacher. He owned and lived in the house he had grown up in, in Colton. He suffered from asthma.

In 2000, Richard and Irma LaQue rented the house next door. About six months later, LaQue started doing Ziegler's plumbing, mowing his lawn, and doing other handyman work. Ziegler told the LaQues he had no relatives. He had friends who visited him, but only once or twice a year.

Starting in 2003 or 2004, Ziegler repeatedly told the LaQues that he wanted them to have his house. He explained that "he wanted somebody that's going to take care of the house that his mom and dad worked so hard for." He did not want it to go to the government.

After a bout of flu in June 2005, Ziegler stopped taking his daily walk. The LaQues began bringing him meals and making sure he ate. Irma started cleaning his house twice a week.

In mid-October 2005, Ziegler was hospitalized. LaQue visited him every day. On November 1, 2005, Ziegler came home from the hospital. However, he stopped going out of his house at all. At his request, the LaQues started helping him out even more. He specifically asked them to continue to bring him meals. They helped him get dressed. They prepared his bath for him. They also ran errands for him.

On November 10, 2005, Ziegler asked LaQue to come over, along with Irma (who was to bring paper and a pen) and anyone else who was at his house. LaQue brought Victor Oga, his daughter's fiancé. Ziegler told them all that "he wanted Richard to have the house." He then dictated a document to Irma. It provided:

"November 10, 2005

"2:15 p.m.

"I Paul Daniel Ziegler home owner of 820 E. G St in Colton, California 92324, am signing over my home and property to Richard H. LaQue Sr.

"This written agreement between myself and Richard is for the exchange of my care and daily meals. This written note will be immediately active if and when I no longer can ...

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