Date Submitted: November 5, 2013
David J. Ferry, Jr., Esquire and Brian J. Ferry, Esquire, of FERRY, JOSEPH & PEARCE, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware; Attorneys for Petitioner.
John F. Brady, Esquire and Julianne E. Murray, Esquire, of MURRAY LAW LLC, Georgetown, Delaware; Attorneys for Respondent.
The last stage of this partition proceeding involves the distribution of proceeds of the sale of the subject property. The parties' dispute boils down to two issues: first, the interpretation of the operative deed and what percentage ownership that deed conferred on the parties, and second, whether the respondent and her son are entitled to contribution from the petitioner for repairs and improvements the respondent made to the property. For the reasons that follow, I conclude that the parties each owned 50% of the property, and that the respondent is entitled to a small portion of the contribution she seeks. This is my final report in this action.
The petitioner, Nancy Weber ("Nancy"),  married Eugene Weber, Jr. ("Eugene") in August 1995. It was a second marriage for both; Nancy had four children from a previous marriage, while Eugene had two children from a previous marriage. One of Eugene's children, Joan Weber ("Joan"), is the respondent in this action. For the bulk of their marriage, Nancy and Eugene lived at 21063 Crazy Lane, Bay Vista, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (the "Property"), a home that Eugene initially owned in his sole name. On August 23, 1996, Eugene executed a deed transferring the property from his name to Nancy and Eugene jointly as husband and wife (the "1996 Deed").
It is fair to say that the relationship between Nancy and Joan was not close. By the time of trial, the parties' mutual dislike was palpable, but the origins of the animosity are disputed and largely irrelevant. In 2003, Joan's name was added to the deed. According to Joan's testimony, Eugene told Joan that he wanted to add her name to the deed, and Joan then consulted an attorney who prepared the deed at Joan's direction and without speaking to Eugene. Eugene asked Nancy to sign the deed, and she obliged. The deed, dated February 20, 2003 (the "2003 Deed") vested title to the Property in:
Eugene Weber, Jr., and Nancy Weber (as to an undivided 50% interest) and Joan Weber (as to an undivided 50% interest), as joint tenants with right of survivorship, of  Vista Crazy Lane, Bay Vista, Rehoboth, Delaware.
On the same date, Eugene and Nancy placed a mortgage on the Property in connection with a home equity loan they received from PNC Bank (the "Mortgage"). Although there initially was some dispute about the matter, Nancy now concedes that she is responsible for the payments Joan made toward the Mortgage after Eugene's death, as well as for the balance that remained on the Mortgage at the time the property was sold. Those payments and the Mortgage balance total $24, 360.64.
In February 2011, long-existing tensions in Eugene and Nancy's marriage reached a boiling point, and Nancy decided to move out of the Property and to Florida to live with her daughter. Joan's son, Scott Vickers ("Mr. Vickers"), moved into the Property shortly thereafter. Both Joan and Mr. Vickers encouraged Nancy to leave the Property. When Mr. Vickers and his wife moved into the Property, they terminated the lease on a home they were renting and agreed to maintain the Property and care for Eugene, who was in poor health, in exchange for living in the Property rent-free.
Eugene passed away on September 18, 2011. After that time, Mr. Vickers and his wife continued to live in the Property and maintain it, and did not pay rent to the owners. Nancy was not aware that either Mr. Vickers or Joan were making repairs or improvements to the property. After Eugene's death, Nancy and Joan engaged in various negotiations regarding the property and its ownership. Although the parties discussed a buyout of Nancy's interest, that never came to fruition, and Nancy filed this partition action.
The parties stipulated to the appointment of William Schab, Esquire, as the trustee authorized to sell the property in a partition sale. The property was sold on February 18, 2013 to the highest bidder at auction for a price of $400, 000. The sale was approved on March 22, 2013, and the parties turned to the meat of the matter: determining how the proceeds of the sale should be divided. In addition to the parties' dispute regarding the percentage of their respective ownership in the property, the trial in this action also addressed Joan's counterclaim seeking a set-off from the sale proceeds for certain improvements, maintenance, and repairs she performed on the Property.  Mr. Vickers also filed a "Bill of Particulars at the return of sale hearing, contending he was entitled to reimbursement for his work on the Property.
At trial, Joan valued the improvements, maintenance and repairs she performed on the property at $61, 944.38. That figure included expenses incurred and labor performed by both Joan and Mr. Vickers, and encompassed: (1) expenses for materials to repair or improve the home, (2) contractors hired to repair the home, (3) taxes and insurance, (4) utility bills, including electric and cable, and (5) "labor" costs assigned to both Joan and Mr. Vickers. Joan did not maintain all the receipts associated with the expenses she incurred to repair and improve the property, nor did she maintain records of the time she spent working on the property. She attributed a value of $10, 000 to the work she performed on the property, and $18, 000 to Mr. Vickers's work on the property, but conceded that both figures were arbitrary sums based on her own estimation of the value she and Mr. Vickers put into the Property. At trial, Joan conceded that Mr. Vickers's Bill of Particulars was more accurate than the figure she assigned to his work, and she withdrew her claim for $18, 000 for his labor. Joan also conceded at trial that Nancy was not responsible for electric or cable bills after she moved out of the Property.
In the appendix to her post-trial brief, Joan submitted a revised estimate of expenses for improvements and maintenance to the house. That revised estimate, which totals $29, 497.09, includes material costs of $9, 673.61,  bills for a plumber, a roofer, and a carpenter who were retained to work on the property for a total cost of $3, 560, costs associated with lawn maintenance, including the purchase of a riding lawnmower for a total cost of $1, 405,  taxes and insurance for a total cost of $2, 321.20,  ...