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In re Estate of Green

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 10, 2019


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/11/2018





          LAWRENCE, J.

         ¶1. Cristina Green appeals the decision of the Lee County Chancery Court to award eight of her late husband's properties to his sister, Shirley Cooley. The chancery court found that Harry delivered the December 31, 2003 deeds to Shirley, and that Harry intended that Shirley own the properties in question. We affirm.


         ¶2. During his lifetime, Harry Green amassed a large estate consisting of various properties. On December 31, 2003, Green had his attorney draft eight deeds that conveyed the following properties to his sister Shirley:

1. 1201 Nixon Drive, Tupelo, MS
2. The "Main Street Warehouse," Shannon, MS
3. The Monroe County Land, Nettleton, MS
4. The "Shannon Lot"
5. Temple Circle, Shannon, MS
6. The "White Lane Property," Nettleton, MS
7. The "Two Houses and Green Valley Lab," Shannon, MS
8. The Summit[1]

         Shirley was not present when these deeds were signed. In fact, both parties agree that she was at her home in Texas at that time. Further, there is no indication in the record that she ever knew the transaction occurred in December 2003. After the deeds were properly acknowledged before a notary public, Harry took the deeds with him for safe keeping. Harry did not deliver the deeds to Shirley at that time, nor did he file them in the county clerk's office.[2]

         ¶3. Later, on January 15, 2004, Shirley was visiting Harry and their mother in Mississippi. Harry asked Shirley to come with him to his attorney's office in Houston, Mississippi to sign some papers. Shirley testified that she signed "everything that was put in front of [her]." The record indicates that Shirley signed the following warranty deeds on January 15, 2004: (1) 1201 Nixon Drive; (2) the Main Street Warehouse; (3) the Monroe County Land; (4) the Shannon Lot; (5) Temple Circle; and (6) the Beauty Shop and House in Monroe County. Shirley told the chancellor that Harry did not tell her anything about why he wanted her to sign the deeds, but that she just trusted Harry. The warranty deeds signed on January 15 were never properly acknowledged or filed. Harry took the deeds with him when he left, and those deeds were never found.[3]

         ¶4. Harry met Cristina in 2003. On January 31, 2004, Harry married Cristina in Las Vegas, Nevada. Cristina testified at trial that Harry "never told [her]" that Shirley owned any of his properties, including the home on Nixon Drive that the newlyweds were living in. Likewise, Cristina testified that her husband kept his business affairs secret. However, Lisa Diallo, a deputy clerk for Lee County, testified that Harry told her his properties were in Shirley's name because he trusted her and his "wife [was] from across the water," and he did not want her to take the property. The chancellor specifically cited this fact in his opinion.

         ¶5. On November 26, 2004, Harry conveyed by quitclaim deed the ninth property, the Plantersville property, to Shirley. Like the deeds signed on December 31, 2003, Shirley was not present and the deed was properly acknowledged. A few days later, on December 3, 2004, Harry traveled to Texas and delivered all of the December 31, 2003 warranty deeds and the November 26, 2004 quitclaim deed to Shirley. Shirley testified that she "put the deeds away," and that Harry told her that in the case something happened to him, she would "know what to do." The December 31, 2003 deeds were recorded on December 4, 2004, except for the Monroe County properties (White Lane and the Monroe County land). Shirley actually filed the White Lane property and the Monroe County land warranty deeds after Harry's death in 2010.

         ¶6. Harry continued to pay taxes on the properties, do routine maintenance, and collect rent. When Harry went to borrow money against the Plantersville property in 2010, however, he asked Shirley to sign the papers required to do so. Shirley testified that Harry had also borrowed against the home at 1201 Nixon Drive twice before. These transactions also required her signature for approval. The chancellor's opinion used these facts to support his factual determination that Harry intended to transfer the properties to his sister instead of to his new spouse.

         ¶7. Harry Green died on July 6, 2010. In 2007, Harry updated his will to devise all of his property to his wife Cristina and his grandchildren. The property listed in the will included the properties Harry deeded to Shirley on December 31, 2003. Because Shirley took control of the properties after Harry's death, Cristina filed a complaint for an accounting of the estate and a declaratory judgment as to the owner of the property at issue. Cristina argued that the deeds signed on January 15, 2004, were properly accepted by Harry, and the properties were to pass as dictated by Harry's will. The estate was never able to find the unacknowledged original deeds signed on January 15, 2004, and those deeds were never filed in the land records or the clerk's office. Copies of the deeds signed that day were retrieved from Harry's attorney, but there is no record of Shirley ever signing a deed to convey the "Two Houses and Green Valley Lab" back to Harry.

         ¶8. The chancellor found that, after reviewing all of Harry's actions, he intended for Shirley to possess the properties. As a result, the court found that Shirley was the rightful owner of the eight properties in dispute.[4] Cristina timely appealed the chancellor's decision.


         ¶9. Our review of the chancellor's decision is limited. The findings of a chancery court will not be disturbed "unless the [court] abused its discretion, applied an erroneous legal standard, or its findings are manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous." Matter of Estate of Smith v. Boolos, 204 So.3d 291, 305 (¶22) (Miss. 2016) (citing In re Estate of Baumgardner, 82 So.3d 592, 598 (¶15) (Miss. 2012)). Questions of law, and issues of constructive trusts, we review de novo. Id.


         ¶10. Cristina argues three issues on appeal. Because her first two issues deal with acceptance and delivery of the deeds signed on January 15, 2004, we consider them as one issue. First, Cristina claims that the chancellor erred in awarding all eight properties to Shirley because Harry had properly accepted the deeds signed on January 15, 2004. Second, she argues a constructive trust was created when Shirley took possession of the properties, and the properties should have been distributed as dictated in Harry's will.

         ¶11. The laws of this State concerning the validity of deeds and the transfer of real property are well settled. For there to be a valid conveyance of real property, there must be delivery and acceptance of a valid deed. In re Estate of Hardy, 910 So.2d 1052, 1054 (¶7) (Miss. 2005). Delivery constitutes a "transfer of [a deed] from the grantor to the grantee or his agent or to some third person for the grantee's use, in such manner as to deprive the grantor of the right to recall it at his option, and with intent to convey title." Id. at (¶8) (citing 23 Am. Jur. 2d Deeds §120, at 156 (1983)). Before delivery is complete, a deed is "without force or effect and is merely a 'scroll under control of the grantor who is free to withdraw it, destroy it, or complete its execution by delivery.'" Morrow v. Morrow, 219 So.3d 142, 146 (¶13) (Miss. 2013). The Mississippi Supreme Court has found that a deed that was signed and acknowledged, but never delivered, was void for lack of delivery. Id. at 1055 (¶8) (citing Grubbs v. Everett, 236 Miss. 698, 701, 111 So.2d 923, 924 (1959)).

         ¶12. Cristina claims that the chancellor erred in awarding all eight properties to Shirley because Harry had properly accepted the deeds signed on January 15, 2004. She argues that Harry's actions leading up to the conveyance on January 15, 2004 showed his intent was always for the properties to return to him. Harry had the deeds that conveyed the properties from him to Shirley (signed on December 31, 2003) and the deeds that transferred them back (signed on January 15, 2004) created at the same time. Additionally, the short period of time between the conveyances, Cristina argues, makes it clear that Shirley was not the intended owner. The chancellor disagreed, and found that Harry's actions indicated he wanted Shirley ...

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