In this action, plaintiff Mechelle McWilliam seeks to void a deed which conveyed her one-half interest in her family home in Foxborough to her mother, defendant Bonney McWilliam. [Note 1] At the time she signed the deed (November 1992), Mechelle was sixteen years old and the only child of a single mother. She lived at the home with her mother Bonney and her grandfather (Bonneys father), Alexander McWilliam, who had previously deeded the property to Mechelle and Bonney as joint tenants in 1991. Bonney gave the deed to her attorney, telling him it would only be recorded if Mechelle gave her trouble. It was nearly four years before the deed was put on record.
In support of her claims to have the deed voided, Mechelle contends that, as a teenager, her home life had been extremely turbulent and thus, in addition to being a minor, she was not mentally competent to execute the deed. As evidence of this, she asserts that during her teenage years she regularly used drugs and alcohol, had a variety of health issues, and sought the attention of her mother (Bonney) by frequently running away from home, dropping out of school, and engaging in other behaviors that often resulted in police intervention. She contends that it was only many years later when she was an adult, had pulled her life together with a GED and college degree, and become a mother herself in 2007, at a restraining order hearing that she brought on her sons behalf against Bonney when she first learned she no longer had an interest in the family property. In the years that followed, efforts between Mechelle and Bonney to repair their relationship faltered, communication ceased, and Mechelle then filed this lawsuit in 2012 to recover her one-half interest in the property.
The case was tried before me, jury-waived. Based on the testimony and exhibits admitted into evidence at trial, and my assessment of the credibility, weight and inferences to be drawn from that evidence, I find and rule as follows.
These are the facts as I find them after trial.
Mechelle was born on September 11, 1976 and grew up with her mother Bonney and her maternal grandparents at 46 Ridge Road in Foxborough (the property). The property includes the family home, built by Mechelles grandfather (Bonneys father) Alexander, and a second, undeveloped parcel located across the street. When she was growing up, Mechelle frequently cared for her grandparents while Bonney was working. Her grandmother had had a series of strokes that left her incapacitated, and her grandfather struggled with a drinking problem. In 1990, when Mechelle was fourteen, she began experimenting with drug use by taking her grandmothers medications.
Around this time, Mechelle also began having a variety of health issues. She exhibited symptoms of asthma. She was getting large bruises and went to see medical specialists in Boston who tested her for leukemia and ultimately diagnosed her condition as Von Willebrands disease, a hereditary blood disorder that causes excessive bleeding. In 1987, she was diagnosed with rotary scoliosis in her upper spine. These conditions caused Mechelle difficulty during her everyday activities, including physical education class at school. As Mechelle testified, she [felt] very withdrawn because I was different and wasnt able to keep up.
Mechelles grandmother died in 1990. After that, when Mechelle was between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, her drug use escalated from taking her grandmothers medication to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and LSD. During this period in 1990, Bonneys boyfriend began living at the family home. Mechelle described him as both verbally and physically abusive. He hit her and threatened her friends to such a degree that she would no longer bring them to the house. After Bonneys boyfriend left the house, Mechelle began to develop a closer relationship with her grandfather who she described as having dealt with his own demons and [thus] kind of understood mine. Mechelles relationship with her mother, however, did not improve, in part because Bonney blamed Mechelle for her boyfriend moving out. From 1990 to 1992, Mechelle began running away from home and staying at friends houses for extended periods of time. As Bonney described it, Shed [Mechelle] walk out and say she was going for an ice cream, and I might see her two weeks later.
During the early 1990s, Bonney began working at the Department of Correction, [Note 2] which caused her concern about her personal safety. According to Bonney, there were a lot of things going on in the department that did not ensure that youd walk out at the end of the day, [that] was the way it was put to me. After speaking about this with her father (Mechelles grandfather), he decided to change the ownership of the property so that if anything happened to Bonney, Mechelle would be taken care of. Thus, by deed dated May 30, 1991 and recorded at the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds at Book 8937, Page 734, Alexander conveyed the property to Bonney and Mechelle [Note 3] as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. The deed was prepared by attorney Stephen Hillman, who had been retained by Bonney.
By the fall of 1992, Mechelles grades had slipped significantly and on September 11, 1992, her sixteenth birthday, she dropped out of school entirely. She had not discussed her decision in advance with Bonney. A few weeks later, on October 29, 1992, Bonney called Mechelles pediatrician with concerns about her drug and alcohol use. Mechelle visited with her pediatrician on October 30, 1992 and was referred to a psychologist whom she saw for approximately five visits.
According to Attorney Hillman, Bonney contacted him shortly after her mother (Mechelles grandmother) died in 1990 and sought his assistance in getting the property transferred into her name. He proposed what he described as a five-step plan to accomplish this goal, with the final step being to transfer the property from the daughter to the mother, all right, title, and interest. [Note 4] Attorney Hillman acknowledged on cross-examination that he had been aware since as early as 1990 that Mechelle had issues with drugs and alcohol. He was also aware of the difficult relationship between Mechelle and Bonney.
On November 6, 1992, Attorney Hillman met with Bonney, Alexander, and Mechelle at the home, during which two deeds were executed. First, Alexander executed a confirmatory deed granting the property to Bonney and Mechelle as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. This deed was recorded at the Registry at Book 9607, Page 592 on November 13, 1992. The second deed conveyed Mechelles interest to Bonney (the deed in dispute). Mechelles signature is on the deed, which was notarized by Attorney Hillman.
Attorney Hillman testified that he was at the McWilliam house for approximately an hour and a half to two hours that afternoon. Despite knowing that Mechelle had issues with substance abuse, was often at odds with her mother, was close to her grandfather, and was unrepresented in the transaction, he testified that he spoke to Mechelle in the living room, away from both her mother and her grandfather, and explained to her that the deed would transfer all of her right and title and interest to her mother. He testified that Mechelle was pleasant during their talk and appeared to fully understand the action she was taking. Although he was aware of the tense relationship between Mechelle and Bonney, Attorney Hillman described a very friendly atmosphere at the house that day. At trial, however, Attorney Hillman also claimed he did not know Mechelle was only sixteen at the time, that she looked older to him, and if he had known her age, he would not have gone through with the transaction. [Note 5] According to Bonney, there was no indication that Mechelle was under the influence of drugs or alcohol that day, and she signed the deed without exhibiting any problems. Mechelle, however, testified she has no memory whatsoever of that November meeting at the house, and only became aware of the deed many years later in 2007.
What is not in dispute is that, unlike the confirmatory deed from Alexander to Bonney and Mechelle (recorded almost immediately), the deed from Mechelle to Bonney was not recorded for years. Attorney Hillmans notes, dated November 10, 1992, shortly after the deed was signed, state, This deed to be recorded only if Bonney Michelle [sic] gives mother Bonney trouble. I will wait for instructions from mother. Attorney Hillman testified that he kept the deed in his possession for almost four years until he was instructed by Bonney to record it. [Note 6] Bonney testified that she told Mechelle in 1996 that she was going to go to the Registry and record the deed because she did not want to see us lose what Ive worked so hard for. Bonney then testified that she told Mechelle she would nonetheless take care of you and yours. (Mechelle denies that this conversation took place). The deed was ultimately recorded at the Registry on February 15, 1996 at Book 11224, Page 637.
I am not persuaded that Bonney ever had this conversation, since it surely would have provoked a strong response from Mechelle. Instead of such a strong response, Bonney testified that Mechelle simply said, in an off-hand way, Go to hell, and continued on her way an extremely unlikely response from someone who was about to lose the only significant asset she had ever owned. Furthermore, Bonneys stated reason for taking complete ownership of the property and then finally putting the deed on record was that she wanted to protect the house from any creditors who might seek to attach or lien Mechelles interest. But this is also not believable. If protecting the property had truly been Bonneys motivation, she would have recorded the deed at the Registry immediately after it was executed. Since Massachusetts is a notice state, an unrecorded deed would offer no protection from attachment or creditor liens. In light of Attorney Hillmans notes that he was instructed to record the deed only if Mechelle gave Bonney any trouble, it is far more likely that Bonney intended to use the deed as leverage over Mechelle.
At trial, Bonney alternated between emphasizing the stress that Mechelle caused her (sentiments that are also contained in her emails to Mechelle), while at same time portraying Mechelle as a teenager who may have had some issues but, on the whole, was capable of making sound decisions. To give but one example, Bonney began by stating, But to say that she (Mechelle) was a diseased alcoholic deviant crack-smoking whatever, no, because she never showed up in any close proximity of time with pointed eyes, not capable of talking, not the clearblurred speech. She was always in full facility and she always came back with a one-liner. She knew what she was doing. But she then contradicted this almost immediately when she said she wanted Mechelle to get therapy because I didnt want to see her a dead, cold corpse on some back road. This could not possibly describe a teenager who was in full facility.
When Bonney was asked if she called Mechelles pediatrician on October 29, 1992 with concerns about Mechelles drug and alcohol use, Bonney denied she made the call. Instead she testified that she suspected Mechelle herself called, pretending to be Bonney. I do not believe this testimony. The call to the pediatrician about Mechelles behavior explains why Bonney got everyone together the following week to execute the various deeds. These two events, coming so close in time to one another, did not just happen by coincidence.
In the months following the execution of the November 1992 deed, Mechelle had several run-ins with the police. She was held for a time at the South Bay Detention Center on a CHINS (Child in Need of Services) warrant, which her mother had sought because of Mechelles drug use and frequent runaways from home. From 1992 to 1993, Mechelle was charged with marijuana possession, theft, and was taken into protective custody (brief police detention until a parent arrives) on other occasions. Mechelle described her drug and alcohol use during this time as plentiful.
From 1994 to 1997, Mechelle and her mother were largely estranged. Mechelle lived with her then-boyfriend, first in Attleboro and then in Rhode Island. But this relationship had its own problems. Mechelle described her boyfriend as being very abusive, and she began to think about ways of trying to leave. She planned to go into the Job Corps, which would provide her with education and housing, but during the physical exam for that program learned she was pregnant. At that point, she reached out to Bonney who told her she should come back home and have her baby there.
Mechelle returned home in early 1997 and gave birth to her son that October. Mechelle remained at the home until May 2006. During that time, she obtained her GED and an associates degree in business management from the Katherine Gibbs School in Boston. Bonney also developed a close relationship with Mechelles son, testifying that they often went to concerts or to the beach or had breakfast when it was only the two of them at home.
Mechelle testified that during this period when she was back at home, she always believed she still had an ownership interest in the property. She testified that when she first spoke to Bonney about returning home in 1997, Bonney had told her that it was [her] home as well. Mechelle also described a co-worker of hers who had an interest in developing the vacant parcel across the street from the familys home. When she told Bonney about the co-workers interest, Bonney said that if there was a serious proposal, they could discuss it together. [Note 7] According to Mechelle, these conversations confirmed her understanding that she was a part owner of the property.
In 2006, Mechelle began to feel that the dynamics of the home were negatively affecting her son who was beginning to have trouble in school. Mechelle did not want her son to go through the same kind of childhood she had. In May 2006, she took her son and left the home, explaining to Bonney that she wanted to continue to work on their relationship, but at the same time needed distance for her and her son. Bonney did not have any contact with Mechelles son for several months after they moved out of the home so, in November 2006, Bonney filed a Motion for Emergency Ex Parte Appointment as Guardian to gain custody of Mechelles son. In her affidavit to the court, Bonney stated that Mechelle had problems with drugs and alcohol, suffers from depression, mixed prescription drugs with alcohol, had mood swings and erratic behavior, and had problems with cleanliness. Bonneys motion was denied by the probate court.
Mechelle was very upset by Bonneys effort to gain custody of Mechelles son, and their relationship continued to deteriorate. Mechelle was contacted by her sons after-school program, and was told that Bonney had followed the sons school bus from school and started showing up at sporting events, making him uncomfortable. In January 2007, Mechelle applied for, and was granted, a restraining order to keep Bonney away from her son. In August 2007, Mechelle and Bonney went back to court for a hearing on extending the restraining order. Mechelle explained to the judge that Bonney had changed the locks on the house and that she had belongings at the home that she wanted to retrieve. According to Mechelle, Bonney told the judge that she would not allow Mechelle to come back to the home because she had no right to be there, having conveyed her interest in the property to Bonney several years ago. This, Mechelle contends, was the first time she became aware that she no longer had an ownership interest in the property. I believe her in this.
After learning of this at the hearing, Mechelle was confused and had many questions about how she could have lost her interest in the property and what that meant for her and her children. [Note 8] Mechelle underwent back surgery in early 2008 and spent the next few months recovering. When she felt well again, Mechelle went to the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds and found both her grandfathers confirmatory deed to Bonney and Mechelle and then the subsequent deed, dated the same day but recorded almost four years later, conveying her one-half interest to Bonney. Mechelle testified this was the first time she could recall seeing those documents, which I believe. Mechelle spoke to Martin Conley who was the Registrar of Deeds, and told him she was sixteen when the deed was executed and had no memory of the transaction. Mr. Conley told her he was not sure if the deed was valid because of her age, and that she should contact Attorney Hillman who was the notary on all the documents. Mechelle then spoke to Attorney Hillman who told her that if she believed something was improper with the deed, she would have to pursue it on her own.
Mechelle also spoke to Bonney, telling her that she had no recollection of signing the deed and that, given the time periodshortly after she had dropped out of school, when she was experimenting more and more with drugs and alcoholshe thought her mother had taken advantage of her. In response, on November 4, 2008, Bonney sent Mechelle an email warning her against trying to reclaim her interest in the property. The email states in part
Your mind has been a mess for a long time but listen to me loud and clear, il [sic] will sell everything if you continue your vendetta against me. Up until now your children ave [sic] had a trust set up for them to be taken care of upon my death. I am not vengeful or hateful dispite [sic] all that you have done to hurt me. Continue on the present road and everyone looses [sic]. Sign another quitclaim or we all loose [sic] Think about it. If you continue I will fight you till my last breath and the loss will be more than you can ever imagine.
Mechelle did not pursue legal action at that time, instead hoping they could resolve the ownership issue between themselves.
In August 2010, Mechelle began seeing a counselor, Deborah Caine, every other week to discuss both her issues and those of her son. Ms. Caine is a staff therapist at South Bay Mental Health in Attleboro, and has worked there since 2003. She testified at trial, and I find her fully qualified to give opinions on therapeutic issues. She received a masters degree from Rhode Island College in agency counseling. She has also received training in cognitive behavioral therapy, psycho-education and narrative therapy, and is certified as a trauma specialist within her agency.
At trial, Ms. Caine described her sessions with Mechelle. Approximately 50 percent of that time was spent talking about Mechelles relationship with Bonney, and the other 50 percent about being a good parent to her children. As part of this counseling, Mechelle reached out to Bonney who came to two sessions. Mechelle remembered them as being volatile. During these sessions, Ms. Caine tried to focus on positive things that Mechelle was doing, but Bonney only wanted to talk about Mechelles past when she was a troublemaker. Mechelle felt that Bonney kept treating her like a teenager, and neither side made any progress in repairing the divide that continued to exist between them.
After the counseling sessions, Bonney wrote a letter to Ms. Caine, which she shared with Mechelle. In the letter, Bonney expressed frustration that Ms. Caine sided with Mechelle during the counseling sessions, writing, I wished you had decided to see another perspective through my eyes but you did not. Bonney then detailed several episodes from when Mechelle was a teenager, which had caused Bonney distress. These included instances of drug and alcohol abuse, theft, and running away from home. Bonney concluded, I truly believe [Mechelle] needs help and is a sociopath. Your constant praise of my daughter gives me great concern that you do not see her for the person she really is please stand back and take a good look at her.
For Mechelle, this letter was a turning point. She testified that she began to realize that obviously the relationship was not going to be what I wanted it to be; and that any window of opportunity to take back what I thought was mine and to get back the items that were most important to me, I was going to have to pursue this in a court manner and accept that. In Ms. Caines opinion, prior to 2011, Mechelle was focused on trying to rebuild her fractured relationship with Bonney, and for that reason, she refrained from bringing a lawsuit over the property because she knew that such an action would mark the end of her relationship with her mother. This lawsuit was filed on May 29, 2012.
Additional facts are discussed in the Analysis section below.
Mechelles Age and Competency at the Time the Deed Was Executed
In Massachusetts, a person under the age of 18 has no capacity to convey title and any deed executed by a minor is voidable. See G.L. c. 231, § 85P (establishing 18 as the age of majority); President, etc. of Boston Bank v. Chamberlin, 15 Mass. 220 (1818). Upon reaching the age of majority, a deed executed by a minor may be ratified or disaffirmed. See Welch v. King, 279 Mass. 445 , 450 (1932). Ratification or disaffirmance can be shown by express words or inferred from conduct. Id. Because the privilege of disaffirmance belongs to the minor, not the other party to the contract, it must be exercised within a reasonable time after reaching the age of majority, with due regard to all the circumstances. See Chamberlain v. Employers Liability Assur. Corp., 289 Mass. 412 , 418 (1935). Similarly, a deed from someone who is mentally incompetent is voidable, and again must be voided within a reasonable time after competency returns or a guardian is appointed. See Brewster v. Weston, 235 Mass. 14 (1920).
Mechelle was 16 at the time the deed was executed and, for that reason alone, the conveyance is voidable. But Mechelle contends further that she also lacked the mental competency to execute the deed. The test for competency focuses on the grantors ability to understand the transaction and its consequences. If she could not understand the nature and quality of the transaction or grasp its significance, then it was not the act of a person of sound mind. There may be intellectual weaknesses not amounting to lack of power to comprehend. But an inability to realize the true purport of the matter at hand is equivalent to mental incapacity. Sutcliffe v. Heatley, 232 Mass. 231 , 232-233 (1919). This is the traditional or cognitive test, which has been used since the early 20th century. See Sparrow v. Demonico, 461 Mass. 322 , 328 (2012) (discussing assessment of mental capacity by the courts). As the understanding of mental illness evolved, the Supreme Judicial Court adopted an alternative test, known as the affective or volitional test, which recognizes that although a party might understand the nature and consequences of a transaction, it could still be voidable where by reason of mental illness or defect, [the person] is unable to act in a reasonable manner in relation to the transaction and the other party has reason to know of his condition. Id. quoting Krasner v. Berk, 366 Mass. 464 , 468 (1974). The Court explained that this test recognizes that competence can be lost, not only through cognitive disorders, but through affective disorders that encompass motivation or exercise of will. Sparrow, 461 Mass. at 329.
Mechelle submitted the written opinion of Dr. Howard Bursztajn regarding her mental competency at the time the deed was signed on November 6, 1992, which was received into evidence without objection. I find him fully qualified to give these opinions. Dr. Bursztajn received his bachelors degree from Princeton and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He has over 30 years of experience in clinical and forensic practice as a psychiatrist, and has authored or co-authored books, chapters, and articles on family dynamics, decision making, the impacts of trauma and other topics in the field of psychiatry. Dr. Bursztajn met with Mechelle for 3 ¼ hours at his office and relied on other psychological tests and self-reported data in forming his opinions.
Dr. Bursztajn noted that Mechelles capacity was likely affected by her age and use of drugs and alcohol. He explained that the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that regulates planning and decision-making, is the last section of the brain to mature in a teenager. (Opinion at 11). The law has long recognized the diminished capacity of minors, which is why their contracts are voidable. Dr. Bursztajn also noted that substance abuse, particularly among teenagers, is likely to exacerbate such deficiencies and delay or inhibit mental development. (Opinion at 12).
In addition to these two factors, Dr. Bursztajn explained that Mechelle was in a heavily enmeshed mother-daughter relationship in which boundaries were blurred and dependency fostered, both of which caused substantial emotional and cognitive delay in [Mechelle]. (Opinion at 5). Dr. Bursztajn pointed to Mechelles chronic illnesses: Von Willebrands disease, asthma, and scoliosis, which set her apart socially and made her extremely vulnerable to dependency on her mother, beyond normal adolescent dependency. (Opinion at 5). Dr. Bursztajn found that the degree of dependency may have retarded [Mechelles] neurodevelopment, specifically with respect to complex decision-making so that she could not be expected to appreciate the meaning, effect, and consequences of a complex transaction that implicated her relationship with her mother. (Opinion at 5). In Dr. Bursztajns opinion, Mechelle was likely to have been particularly susceptible to undue influence to the advantage of her mother. (Opinion at 5).
Dr. Bursztajn also noted Bonneys tendency to exert control over Mechelle by withholding crucial information from her as she was growing up. Most notably, Bonney never told Mechelle who her father was even after Mechelle was diagnosed with genetic medical conditions where such information could have been useful for prognosis and treatment. (Opinion at 5). Concerning Bonneys tendency to conceal information, this opinion is consistent with the testimony at trial. Bonney testified that she wanted Mechelle to convey the property to her to protect it from any potential creditors seeking to attach Mechelles interest. But, for the reasons discussed above, this is not credible because Bonney waited several years to record the deed and thus there was no protection from creditors during that time. Instead, after Mechelle signed the deed, Bonney instructed Attorney Hillman to hold it in his possession. Since the deed was not on record, Mechelle would not have been able to locate it if she later had questions about what she signed. I find that this was a deliberate effort by Bonney to conceal the deed until enough time had passed when she could record it without alerting Mechelle, who might challenge its validity.
During Attorney Hillmans testimony, I was careful to note his account of his conversation with Mechelle that took place before the deed was signed. He testified that he explained to Mechelle that, by executing the deed, she would be conveying all of her right and title and interest in the real estate to her mother. This is a very legalistic way of describing the transaction, and would make little sense to a sixteen year old, particularly one with illness, drug, and alcohol problems. As Attorney Hillman remembers it, Mechelle had no questions, and said she understood what she was doing. I doubt she expressed this so affirmatively, and may simply have said yeah to a leading question. In any event, I find that she did not understand that she was giving up her entire interest in the property, fully and finally. Tellingly, their conversation took place away from Mechelles grandfather whose own deed, signed only moments before, had confirmed his conveyance of the property to Bonney and Mechelle as joint tenants.
In support of her contentions, Bonney offered the written opinion of Dr. Andrew Clark with respect to Mechelles mental competency at the time the deed was executed. (Trial Ex. 18, Clark Opinion). Dr. Clark is a child, adult, and forensic psychiatrist. He earned his medical degree from the University of Michigan and has held positions at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is currently in private practice. Dr. Clark did not meet with Mechelle, although he reviewed other material such as deposition transcripts and medical records. Rather than opining on whether Mechelle understood the significance of the deed at the time she signed it, and whether she acted within a reasonable time after learning of the deed, Dr. Clarks opinion focused more on what he believed is the difficulty in gaining a clear understanding as to the mental state of an individual at any particular point in time, as around the question of capacity to execute a deed (Clark Opinion at 6). He opined, [t]rying to arrive at such a determination more than 20 years after the time in question is a markedly more difficult endeavor . (Clark Opinion at 6). Dr. Clark concluded, based on his review of the materials available to him, that Mechelle and her mother had a conflicted, sometimes hostile, and rather distant relationship around November of 1992 [but] There is very little useful information available that might help provide a more psychologically rich portrait of the relationship between them. (Clark Opinion at 9).
I have reviewed the opinions of both expert witnesses in detail, and weighed them against the testimony of the witnesses at trial and my review of the exhibits admitted into evidence. I find the conclusions reached by Dr. Bursztajn are consistent with my assessment of the witnesses and other evidence at trial. Based on the circumstances surrounding the transactionMechelles age and substance abuse, the presence of Bonneys attorney, the lack of any independent representation for Mechelle, the highly fraught relationship between mother and daughter, and Mechelles susceptibility to Bonneys influenceI find and conclude that Mechelle lacked the capacity to understand the transaction and the permanent consequences it would have for her. Even if Mechelle could have understood the consequences of signing the deed, under the volitional test for competency, I find that it was the act of an emotionally troubled teenager whose will was overcome by two prominent figures of authority in her lifeher mother and her mothers attorney.
Mechelle Disaffirmed the Deed within a Reasonable Time
Bonney contends that, even if the deed was voidable because of Mechelles age or lack of competency, it should not be invalidated because Mechelle failed to disaffirm within a reasonable time. She points specifically to the fifteen year period from 1992 to 2007 when Mechelle took no action with respect to the deed. See Defendants Memorandum of Facts and Rulings of Law at 13.
In response, Mechelle testified that she had no memory of signing the deed in November 1992 and, in the following years, always believed she still had an ownership interest in the property. [Note 9] I believe this testimony. It is not unreasonable that a sixteen year old would have no recollection of signing her name to a document she did not fully understand, particularly given everything else that was going on in her life at that time a difficult relationship with her mother, chronic illnesses, recently dropping out of school, abusing drugs and alcohol, and running away from home. Mechelle testified clearly about other events in her life that occurred around that time such as leaving school, getting detained on a CHINS warrant, and visiting with her doctors. But these are significant events that would stand out for any teenager in ways that signing a document, because her mother told her to, would not. I thus do not credit Bonneys contention that Mechelle signed the deed, understood it, and then affirmatively chose not to contest it for fifteen years.
When Mechelle learned that she might not have an interest in the property during her restraining order hearing in 2007, she disaffirmed the deed by confronting her mother and asking her how this had happened, voicing her opposition to the Registrar of Deeds, and telling Attorney Hillman she believed the deed was invalid because she was sixteen when it was executed. The privilege of disaffirmance must be exercised within a reasonable time having regard to all the circumstances. Welch v. King, 279 Mass. 445 , 450 (1932). While fifteen years is a considerable period of time, it was not unreasonable under these circumstances where Mechelle had no real understanding of the significance of the deed she was signing and no memory of signing it. For example, in Welch, a minor who was engaged to be married entered into a trust agreement whereby all income producing property accruing to her would be transferred and held by her legal guardian, as trustee. Thirty years later, when her husband gave her a $1,000 bond as a gift, the succeeding trustees demanded the bond be turned over to them under the terms of the trust. The Court held that disaffirmance occurred within a reasonable time, although thirty years later, because the husbands gift marked the first time the clause could take effect. Id. at 451. The Court explained, it would have been a dumb show for the defendant to undertake a repudiation of the clause before anyone could anticipate that it would ever become operative. Id. In this case, for many years Mechelle had no recollection of signing the deed. She could not disaffirm what she could not remember or understand. In 2007, when she first understood what had happened several years before, Mechelle immediately expressed her opposition, first to her mother, and then to Attorney Hillman. This was sufficient to disaffirm the deed. See Tracy v. Brown, 265 Mass. 163 , 164-165 (1928) (A minor, in order to avoid a contract, is not obliged to use any particular words or perform any specific acts. Any acts or words showing unequivocally a repudiation of the contract are sufficient to avoid it.).
There was no evidence that Mechelle ever subsequently ratified the deed during the period from 2007 until 2012 when she brought this lawsuit. Although Mechelle refrained from taking legal action when she learned of the deed in 2007, she continued to assert her rights to the property, which she insisted had been wrongly taken from her. In an email to Bonney on May 26, 2010, Mechelle wrote, It was you who told him [Mechelles son] that would always be his home, forever! I wonder what grandpa would think? He never wanted anyone but a McWilliam in that home I payed [sic] my dues to you and your parents and am as entitled to that home and property as you are. I credit the opinions of Dr. Bursztajn and Ms. Caine who both explained that Bonney exercised significant influence over Mechelle well into her adult life. At times, this was achieved through threats and manipulation as is found in Bonneys November 4, 2008 email to Mechelle where she threatened to sell the property and terminate the trusts for Mechelles children if Mechelle pressed her claim.
According to Dr. Bursztajn, it was only in response to some significant actionsuch as Bonneys attempt to gain custody of Mechelles son that Mechelle was able to assert her independence and protect her legal rights. As Dr. Bursztajn opined, The growth [Mechelle] experienced in the custody dispute, as she learned she could prevail over her mother in court, enabled her to overcome her mothers undue influence in what had long been an area of greater vulnerability for her. (Opinion at 9). For Mechelle, Bonneys 2011 letter to Ms. Caine was a similar turning point, which allowed Mechelle to finally conclude that she was unlikely to repair her relationship with her mother and the only way she could regain her interest in the property was to bring a lawsuit. Given this, I find that delay between Mechelles 2007 knowledge of the deed and her bringing of this action in 2012 to be reasonable as well.
Lastly, Bonney makes an argument based on what she characterizes as the equities in this case. She has spent significant sums of money from 1992 to 2012 repairing the house, adding a new heating system, new septic system, and twice adding a new roof. She has additionally paid all the routine bills, taxes, and utilities. She thus contends it would be inequitable to allow Mechelle to now reap a windfall from these improvements. I find this argument unpersuasive. It has long been recognized that one who enters into a transaction with a minor or an incompetent does so at her own peril. See Brewster v. Weston, 235 Mass. 14 , 16 (1920). Moreover, Bonney has lived in the property all these years, thus having its benefit, and can be compensated for any disproportionate contributions that increased the value of the real estate in a partition action. See G.L. c. 241, § 23.
For the foregoing reasons, the deed from Bonney Mechelle McWilliam to Bonney McWilliam, dated November 6, 1992 and recorded in the Registry at Book 11224, Page 637 is hereby declared NULL and VOID and shall be STRICKEN from the Registry.
Judgment shall enter accordingly.
[Note 1] I refer to the parties by their first names for ease of reference.
[Note 2] She also worked as a 911 operator and reserve officer for the Foxborough Police Department.
[Note 3] Mechelle went by Bonney Mechelle McWilliam at the time.
[Note 4] The steps were listed in notes from Attorney Hillmans file, which were admitted into evidence. (These notes are not dated, and it is not clear when they were created. The list of agreed exhibits only indicates that these notes are from Attorney Hillmans real estate file). Step One was a deed from Alexander McWilliam to Bonney McWilliam, as trustee of the Bonney Trust. Attorney Hillmans notes indicate this deed was executed on November 9, 1990 and recorded in the Registry at Book 8821, Page 697. Step Two was a deed from Bonney McWilliam, as trustee of the Bonney Trust, back to Alexander McWilliam, executed on May 30, 1991 and recorded at Book 8937, Page 733 (why this back-and-forth conveyance occurred was not explained). Step Three was a deed from Alexander McWilliam to Bonney and Mechelle McWilliam executed on May 30, 1991 and recorded at Book 8937, Page 734 (this is the deed which granted Mechelle her interest in the property). Step Four was a confirmatory deed from Alexander McWilliam to Bonney and Mechelle McWilliam executed on November 6, 1992 and recorded at Book 9607, Page 592. (Why a confirmatory deed was needed was not explained). The fifth and final step would be a deed from Mechelle McWilliam to Bonney McWilliam (this is the deed in dispute, executed on November 6, 1992).
It was not clear how much of this was explained to Alexander (who was struggling with alcoholism at the time), and there was no credible evidence that it was his intent to have the property fully titled in Bonney. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. His deeds stopped with his conveyance to Bonney and Mechelle, as joint tenants. Had he truly wanted the property titled solely in Bonney, a single deed from him, saying so, would have been sufficient.
[Note 5] Bonney contradicted this on cross examination, stating that Attorney Hillman told her that she (Bonney) could speak for Mechelle since she was still a minor. Bonney explained that she took that to mean that she could make decisions about the property for Mechelle, but Attorney Hillman had suggested telling Mechelle about the transaction and asking for her signature.
[Note 6] Bonney testified that she kept the deed in her possession and never gave any instructions to Attorney Hillman. I find otherwise. I do not believe that Attorney Hillman simply made up the notes that appear in his files. Furthermore, as Bonney testified, she recorded the deed precisely when she felt like she had reached her limit with Mechelle. Bonney testified that she decided, after almost four years, to finally record the deed in February of 1996 because Mechelle was around less and less Everything that came to me about her was very unflattering to say the least. Bonney felt that she hit a wall and just could not go any further. Bonneys testimony perfectly aligns with the instructions in Attorney Hillmans notes. I thus credit his testimony, not Bonneys.
[Note 7] Nothing ultimately came of the co-workers interest as he ran into his own marital difficulties.
[Note 8] By this time, Mechelle also had a daughter, who was born in March 2007.
[Note 9] Mechelle has not alleged that the deed was fraudulently signed; just that she does not remember signing it. The signature on the deed closely matches Mechelles signature on court documents from when she was arrested for a drug offense in 1994 (Trial Ex. 11), thus making it unlikely that someone else forged Mechelles signature on the deed.