This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A06-1393

 

Therese J. Miska,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Justin Dennis Miska, et al.,

Respondents,

 

Robert Dennis Miska,

Respondent,

 

Jessica T. Miska, a minor,

Respondent,

 

Lindsey M. Miska, a minor,

Respondent,

 

Robert E. Curtis,

Respondent,

 

Dorothy A. Curtis,

Respondent.

 

Filed July 24, 2007

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Halbrooks, Judge

 

 

Chisago County District Court

File No. 13-CV-05-129

 

 

John W. Lang, Nicholas J. Eugster, Messerli & Kramer, P.A., 1800 Fifth Street Towers, 150 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellant)

 

Harvey N. Jones, Harvey N. Jones, P.A., 1350 South Frontage Road, Hastings, MN 55033 (for respondents Justin D. Miska, Jacob D. Miska, Lori L. Van Winkle)

 

Robert Dennis Miska, 6378 Farmer Trail, Northfield, MN 55057 (respondent)

 

Jessica T. Miska, c/o Therese Miska, 11216 St. Croix Trail, North Branch, MN 55056 (respondent)

 

Lindsey Miska, c/o Therese Miska, 11216 St. Croix Trail, North Branch, MN 55056 (respondent)

 

Robert E. Curtis, 2561 Western Avenue North, Roseville, MN 55113 (respondent)

 

Dorothy A. Curtis, 2561 Western Avenue North, Roseville, MN 55113 (respondent)

 

 

            Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

HALBROOKS, Judge

            On appeal from the district court’s judgment granting appellant a one-half undivided interest in the homestead, appellant argues that respondents lack standing to challenge the antenuptial agreement to which they were not parties.  In addition, appellant argues that the district court erred by denying her petition to reform the warranty deed because the antenuptial agreement between appellant and her now-deceased husband unambiguously placed the property in joint tenancy, and that tenancy was not severed.  We affirm the district court’s determination that appellant’s stepchildren have standing.  But because we conclude that clear and convincing evidence supports reformation of the warranty deed to effect the parties’ intent to establish a joint tenancy, we reverse that portion of the judgment and remand.

FACTS

            In preparation for their marriage in 1989, Dennis G. Miska (Miska) and appellant Therese J. Miska entered into an antenuptial agreement.  To effectuate the agreement, Miska transferred by quit-claim deed “[a]n undivided one-half (1/2) interest as Joint Tenant, with right of survivorship in the East 1/2 of the Southwest 1/4 of Section 18, Township 35, Range 20, according to the United States Government survey thereof.”  Miska also signed an assignment of contract for deed by individual vendor, vendee, or assignee in which he assigned and transferred “1/2 of Vendee interest in that certain contract” for the homestead, on which he then still owed $43,232.23.  The antenuptial agreement identified the homestead by its legal description and provided:

By the execution of this Agreement the title to the aforesaid real property is hereby granted and transferred to the names of Dennis G. Miska and [appellant], as Joint Tenants, and not as Tenants in Common, with right of survivorship, and has been formalized by filing a Quit Claim Deed and Assignment of Vendee’s Interest in Contract for Deed.

 

            2.3 Disposition of Homestead:

 

                        2.3.1.  It is understood by both parties that since the aforesaid Homestead and farm will be in Joint Tenancy it will pass to the Survivor upon the death of one of the parties.

 

In addition, under “Disposition of Homestead,” the agreement states that “[i]n the event of the death of either party, all property, real and personal, except as stated herein to the contrary, shall descend to the survivor.”  All three documents were timely filed in the Chisago County Recorder’s Office.

            During their marriage, appellant used approximately $25,000 of her retirement funds to pay off the balance due on the contract for deed.  As a result, on February 19, 1994, the vendors, Robert E. and Dorothy A. Curtis, executed a “Warranty Deed—Individual(s) to Individual(s),” transferring the parcel to “Dennis G. Miska and [appellant], husband and wife, Grantee(s).”  Appellant testified that throughout their marriage, both she and Miska believed that they had created a joint tenancy in the homestead. 

            After Miska died, intestate, in a motor-vehicle accident on June 19, 2004, appellant filed a complaint in district court, seeking to be named owner of the homestead through survivorship of the joint tenancy.  She joined as defendants Miska’s children from his first marriage and the Curtises, who subsequently executed a corrective warranty deed that conveyed the property to Miska and appellant as joint tenants with right of survivorship effective February 28, 1994, the date of the original warranty deed.  Miska’s four children answered and counterclaimed that appellant acquired only an indivisible one-half interest in the homestead through survivorship.[1]

            Appellant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the antenuptial agreement is unambiguous and that any errors in the conveyancing documents should be reformed by the district court based on mutual mistake.  The district court denied the motion on the ground that the inconsistent documents raised “a question of material fact as to what Dennis Miska’s intentions were regarding transference of the property.”  Following a bench trial, the district court held that appellant has an undivided one-half interest in the homestead, and the children have the remaining undivided one-half interest.  Appellant brought a posttrial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or for amended findings of fact, conclusions of law and order or new trial.  The district court denied the motion, making nondispositive amendments to its findings of fact.  This appeal follows.

D E C I S I O N

I.

 

            Appellant argues that respondents lack standing to challenge the antenuptial agreement because they were neither signatories to the agreement nor able to represent Miska’s probate estate.  “Standing is a jurisdictional question to be determined by this court.”  In re Implementation of Util. Energy Conservation Improvement Programs, 368 N.W.2d 308, 312 (Minn. App. 1985). 

            “Standing is the requirement that a party has a sufficient stake in a justiciable controversy to seek relief from a court.”  State by Humphrey v. Philip Morris, Inc., 551 N.W.2d 490, 493 (Minn. 1996) (citing Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 731-32, 92 S. Ct. 1361, 1364-65 (1972)).  Standing results from a statutory basis or “injury-in-fact.”  Humphrey, 551 N.W.2d at 493.  A party has suffered an injury-in-fact when “specific, concrete facts” show that the party has been “personally harmed.”  Villars v. Provo, 440 N.W.2d 160, 162 (Minn. App. 1989).  The absence of standing causes a claim to fail.  Humphrey, 551 N.W.2d at 493.  Similarly, “strangers to a contract acquire no rights under the contract.”  Wurm v. John Deere Leasing Co., 405 N.W.2d 484, 487 (Minn. App. 1987).   

            Appellant’s complaint included the children as defendants “due to their potential property rights as surviving children and intestate heirs of decedent, Dennis G. Miska[,] pursuant to the provisions of Minnesota Law relating to the descent of homestead property.”  The determination of appellant’s property rights following Miska’s death affects the potential inheritance that the children will receive.  Because the children have a stake in how the antenuptial agreement is interpreted, they have standing in this matter.

II.

            Joint tenancy in Minnesota is created by statute.  Minn. Stat. § 500.19 (2006).  Statutory construction is a question of law, which this court reviews de novo.  Brookfield Trade Ctr., Inc. v. County of Ramsey, 584 N.W.2d 390, 393 (Minn. 1998).  Application of a statute to the undisputed facts of a case involves a question of law, and the district court’s decision is not binding on this court.  O’Malley v. Ulland Bros., 549 N.W.2d 889, 892 (Minn. 1996). 

            Under the joint-tenancy statute, “one or more owners of an interest in real estate may convey all or part of the interest directly to one or more other persons or to one or more of themselves, or to any combination of one or more of themselves and other persons.”  Minn. Stat. § 500.19, subd. 4(a).  Joint tenancies are recognized only through express declaration of joint tenancy.  Id., subd. 2.

            Antenuptial agreements are valid and enforceable in Minnesota when they comply with statutory formalities of fairness, writing, and acknowledgment.  Minn. Stat. § 519.11 (2006).  The contents of an agreement are “prima facie proof of the matters acknowledged therein.”  Id., subd. 5.  Agreements that by their terms convey or affect rights in real estate may be filed in the recorder’s office in the county where the property is located to be effective against subsequent good-faith purchasers for value.  Id., subds. 3-4.  An antenuptial agreement is subject to the usual rules of contract construction.  Pollock-Halvarson v. McGuire, 576 N.W.2d 451, 455-56 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. May 28, 1998).  “The fundamental approach to construing contracts is to allow the intent of the parties to prevail.”  Turner v. Alpha Phi Sorority House, 276 N.W.2d 63, 66 (Minn. 1979).

            A conveyance of real estate includes any “instrument in writing whereby any interest in real estate is created, aliened, mortgaged, or assigned or by which the title thereto may be affected in law or in equity.”  Minn. Stat. § 507.01 (2006).  Necessary compliance with the statute of frauds requires that the writing identify the parties, land, and terms and conditions of the transaction.  Doyle v. Wohlrabe, 243 Minn. 107, 110, 66 N.W.2d 757, 761 (1954).  A written agreement between two individuals to own property “as joint tenants and not as tenants in common” with the necessary prerequisites for a conveyance creates a valid conveyance in joint tenancy.  Staples v. Miller, 319 N.W.2d 57, 59-61 (Minn. 1982). 

            None of the parties disputes the legitimacy of the antenuptial agreement.  But the parties disagree as to the effect of three documents:  the quit-claim deed, the antenuptial agreement, and the 1994 warranty deed.  The quit-claim deed transferred to appellant “[a]n undivided one-half (1/2) interest as Joint Tenant, with right of survivorship” in the homestead, and the parties dispute whether that granting language gave appellant a joint tenancy in the entire parcel or only in an undivided one-half of the homestead.  The parties also disagree as to whether the antenuptial agreement acted as a conveyance and thus created a joint tenancy in the entire parcel.  Similarly, the parties differ about whether the 1994 warranty deed, which granted the entire parcel to “Dennis G. Miska and [appellant], husband and wife, Grantee(s),” severed joint tenancy.

            The antenuptial agreement identifies the parties (appellant and Miska), gives a legal description of the homestead, and indicates that appellant receives a joint tenancy in the entire homestead.  Therefore, the antenuptial agreement is a conveyance of real estate.  Furthermore, the parties filed the agreement and the supporting transactions in the recorder’s office, thus placing other parties on notice of the homestead’s title.  The documents were filed on the same day and have consecutive filing numbers, suggesting the parties’ intent to establish the homestead in joint tenancy.  The joint tenancy is not lost by the drafting error in the quit-claim deed that by its terms granted appellant a joint tenancy only in a one-half undivided interest in the homestead.  The presence of the filed agreement gives notice of the parties’ intent as to the homestead’s title.  And although the Curtises failed to indicate joint tenancy on the warranty deed, they willingly provided appellant with a corrective deed, maintaining joint tenancy.

            Nonetheless, if appellant and Miska created a joint tenancy, an issue remains as to whether the warranty deed effected a severance.  The district court found that recording the deed effected a severance because the Curtises did not recall the parties’ intent at the time it was executed in 1994.  Severance of a joint tenancy is possible only if

(1) the instrument of severance is recorded in the office of the county recorder or the registrar of titles in the county where the real estate is situated; or (2) the instrument of severance is executed by all of the joint tenants; or (3) the severance is ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction; or (4) a severance is effected pursuant to bankruptcy of a joint tenant.

 

Minn. Stat. § 500.19, subd. 5.  The statute eliminates historical methods of severance.  See id., subd. 3 (abolishing the “common law requirement for unity of time, title, interest, and possession in the creation of a joint tenancy”).  Because the statute replaced the common-law forms of severance, the statute is construed strictly.  Wendt v. Hane, 401 N.W.2d 457, 459 (Minn. App. 1987).

            Initially, the Curtises transferred the property by warranty deed to “Dennis G. Miska and [appellant], husband and wife, Grantee(s).”  That deed, which was recorded, did not mention joint tenancy as required to create such title.  But Robert Curtis testified at trial concerning his intent associated with the warranty deed as follows:

Q.        Did you believe that that Warranty Deed put the title of the property into Dennis and Therese Miska’s names as joint tenants with the right of survivorship?

 

A.         Yes.

 

Q.        So if – if it’s determined that that Deed doesn’t put it in the names as joint tenants with the right of survivorship would you believe that that Deed was incorrect?

 

A.         State that again please?

 

Q.        Well, you just testified that you note that that Warranty Deed put the title into Dennis and Therese Miska’s name as joint tenants with a right of survivorship.  The effect of that is that it doesn’t put the names or title the joint tenancy with the right of survivorship with Dennis and Therese Miska.  Would you believe that that is incorrect and should be corrected?

 

A.         Well, I believe it should have been put in there as her right of survivors, ya.

. . . .

 

Q.        Now Mr. Curtis, I’m showing you what has been marked as Plaintiff’s Exhibit 5.  Which says Corrective Warranty Deed on the top.  Did you sign that Corrected Warranty Deed?

 

A.         It certainly looks like it, nobody writes like me.

 

Q.        If – if the legal affect of that Corrective Warranty Deed is to put the property which is the subject of this lawsuit into joint tenancy with Dennis Miska and Therese Miska, with the right of survivorship, do you believe that that would be the correct Warranty Deed that should be given to the Miskas?

 

A.         Uh-huh.

 

Q.        Is that a yes?

 

A.         Yes.

 

. . . .

 

Q.        Mr. Curtis, so it’s your testimony that you believed that husband and wife meant that the parties received it as joint tenants with the right of survivorship on that original Deed?

 

A.         Yes.

 

Q.        It doesn’t say in that Deed anywhere that they are named as Tenants in Common does it?

 

A.         No.

 

While Curtis’s recollection of the events has faded over time, a fair reading of his intent supports appellant’s position.  We therefore conclude that the filing of the warranty deed did not effect a severance.

            Likewise, the intent expressed by the Miskas and supported by Curtis requires consideration of whether the Curtis deed should be reformed to preserve the joint tenancy.  A court may reform an instrument if all the following elements are proven: (1) the parties had a valid agreement expressing their real intentions; (2) the written instrument failed to express their intent; and (3) the failure was due to the parties’ mutual mistake.  Johnson v. Giese, 231 Minn. 258, 261, 42 N.W.2d 712, 715 (1950).  Mutual mistake occurs when “both parties agree as to the content of the document but that somehow through a scrivener’s error the document does not reflect that agreement.”  Nichols v. Shelard Nat’l Bank, 294 N.W.2d 730, 734 (Minn. 1980).  In contrast, if “neither misled the other, but nevertheless each party was mistaken and thought he was making a different contract from what the other party supposed he was making, reformation is not an appropriate remedy.”  Id. 

            The essential facts supporting reformation “must be proved by evidence that is clear, unequivocal and convincing.  Something more than a mere preponderance of evidence is required.”  Johnson, 231 Minn. at 262, 42 N.W.2d at 715 (quotation omitted).  If proved, a mutual mistake as to the legal effect of the deed’s technical language warrants reformation, and “[a] deed creating by mistake a tenancy in common, where a joint tenancy was intended, will be reformed.”  Magnuson v. Diekmann, 689 N.W.2d 272, 274 (Minn. App. 2004) (quoting Papke v. Pearson, 203 Minn. 130, 137, 280 N.W. 183, 186 (1938)).

            Here, the antenuptial agreement provides clear and convincing evidence of the parties’ intent to create a joint tenancy in the homestead for appellant.  Appellant’s affidavit and her subsequent testimony state that both appellant and Miska believed that the antenuptial agreement transferred the homestead to appellant as a joint tenant with the intention that the survivor would control and own the entire property.  Furthermore, appellant’s conduct before Miska’s death, using $25,000 of her retirement funds and thus incurring early-withdrawal penalties, to pay off the contract for deed, was consistent with her belief that she had a joint tenancy in the homestead.   

            The facts and documents in this case are similar to the evidence that was deemed sufficient to support reformation in Magnuson.  In Magnuson, the grantor filed a quit-claim deed, reserving a life interest and deeding the property after his death to his three children without indicating joint tenancy.  689 N.W.2d at 273.  He later executed a deed conveying the property to the children as joint tenants.  Id. at 273-74.  After the death of the father and one of the children, one of the survivors sold the interest to the other survivor, but the title insurance company would not issue a policy because the first deed did not specify title.  Id. at 274.  The personal representative of the deceased child sued, claiming that the first deed granted each child a one-third interest.  Id.  In contrast, the surviving children claimed that they were joint tenants.  Id.  Three documents—a corrective deed, a will codicil, and the affidavit of the attorney who drafted the deed—supported reforming the deed.  Id. at 275.  Therefore, this court affirmed the district court’s conclusion that clear and convincing evidence supported reformation to establish joint tenancy.  Id. at 275-76.

            Here, Curtis testified that he believed the warranty deed transferred the property to the Miskas, named as “husband and wife” in the deed, as joint tenants and, if not, that the deed should be reformed.  The Curtises provided appellant with a corrective warranty deed in order to effectuate that outcome.  Although Curtis also testified that he never asked the Miskas about the nature of the title that they wanted and did not remember many details of the 1994 transaction, his stated intent was to transfer the land in joint tenancy.  Finally, appellant’s conduct, affidavit, and testimony are consistent with the existence of a joint tenancy; and no party testified that there was ever any contrary intent.  Because we conclude that, based on this record, a mutual mistake occurred, reformation to ensure the intended joint tenancy is appropriate.

            Therefore, on remand, the parties shall create and file, with the district court’s approval, any documents necessary to effectuate the reformation described in this opinion.

            Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

 



[1] Miska’s other children named as respondents include Robert D. Miska, appellant’s stepson, whose counterclaim and answer the district court dismissed upon his wishes at start of trial, and appellant’s minor daughters, Jessica and Lindsey Miska.