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In re Estate of Brown

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 3, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JAMES DWIGHT BROWN, DECEASED: STEVE AMOS, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF SANDRA PATRICK, DECEASED APPELLANT/ CROSS-APPELLEE
v.
JAMES DWAYNE BROWN, JASON DWIGHT BROWN AND FELICIA LYNN NOLL APPELLEES/ CROSS-APPELLANTS

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/20/2018

          MADISON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. ROBERT GEORGE CLARK III TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: PAMELA L. HANCOCK JEFFREY BRYAN McGUIRE WHITNEY MOSEL THRASHER.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: F. HALL BAILEY OWEN PATRICK LALOR.

          BEFORE BARNES, C.J., GREENLEE AND LAWRENCE, JJ.

          GREENLEE, J.

         ¶1. This appeal concerns a 2017 Honda Ridgeline truck. The issue is whether the truck owned by the decedent had been given to Sandra Patrick and was her property and not that of the decedent's estate. The Madison County Chancery Court held for the appellees. We reverse, render, and remand.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. In this estate matter, Patrick filed a motion for declaratory judgment seeking ownership of a 2017 Honda Ridgeline truck. In response, Brown's heirs, James Dwayne Brown, Jason Dwight Brown, and Felicia Lynn Noll ("Appellees"), filed an answer to Patrick's declaratory motion, as well as a counterclaim for declaratory relief and partition. In their Answer and Counterclaim, the Appellees alleged that (1) "Patrick ha[d] unclean hands and [was] barred from seeking to obtain any affirmative relief"; (2) "[Patrick] was not a title holder as joint tenant with right of survivorship"; (3) "[Patrick] did not acquire an ownership interest by inter vivos gift"; (4) "[Patrick] did not acquire an ownership interest by testamentary gift"; (5) "[Patrick] did not acquire an ownership interest by purchase"; and (6) "[Patrick's] claim [was] barred by failure of consideration, unjust enrichment and estoppel, waiver or laches." In addition, the Appellees sought a ruling from the chancery court confirming title to the 2017 Honda Ridgeline. In the alternative, the Appellees sought partition of ownership interests in the vehicle under Mississippi Code Annotated sections 11-21-71 to -81 (Rev. 2019).

         ¶3. The record shows James Dwight Brown ("Brown") was in a romantic relationship with Patrick during his lifetime. After receiving a large settlement check, Brown purchased a Toyota Tacoma and a new home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. It is undisputed that the two of them shared the home together, but Brown and Patrick never married. A month or so prior to Brown's death, Brown purchased a second truck, a 2017 Honda Ridgeline. Brown and Patrick both signed the application for the certificate of title for the 2017 Honda Ridgeline. The 2017 Honda Ridgeline was then titled in both of their names as: "BROWN, JAMES D OR PATRICK, SANDRA." The application appears in the appendix below.

         ¶4. At the time of the proceedings, Mississippi Administrative Code Title 35, Part VI, Subpart 6, Chapter 3 governed joint ownership of vehicles for title purposes.[1] That regulation[2] provided as follows:

100 Joint ownership of a motor vehicle: Where ownership is a joint tenancy, with right of survivorship, the owners' names on the title shall be shows as follow: JOHN DOE AND/OR JOE DOE. To transfer ownership of the vehicle or to encumber the vehicle, both signatures are required [if] both are living; if one of the parties is deceased, satisfactory proof of death of the deceased and signature of the survivor.
101 Where ownership is a tenancy in common, the owners' names are shown as follows: JOHN DOE AND JOE DOE. To transfer ownership of the vehicle or to encumber the vehicle, both signatures are required if both are living; if one of the parties is deceased, probate proceedings are required. Where there has been no admission on the estate of the deceased vehicle owner-affidavit on Form 65-015 is required.
102 Where the ownership is a joint tenancy, with an expressed intent that either of the owners have full authority to transfer ownership of the vehicle or to encumber the same, the owners' names are shown on the title as follows: JOHN DOE OR JOE DOE.

Miss. Admin. Code tit. 35, pt. VI, r. 6.03 (effective as of Nov. 17, 2011).

         ¶5. The chancery court found that the 2017 Honda Ridgeline was titled in the manner set forth in Subsection 102. Patrick argued that this effectively created a joint tenancy with a right of survivorship. The Appellees contested, among other things, that the title was a failed attempt to give an inter vivos gift to Patrick.

         ¶6. Following a hearing on the cross-petitions, the chancery court entered a judgment finding that the Appellees were the rightful owners of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline due to a failed inter vivos gift. The court explained that (1) "[t]here was never a delivery and relinquishment of control over the vehicle" and (2) "the gift was revocable." However, because of this ruling, the chancery court did ...


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