Q: “My father owned some property in Middletown that was left to him by his father. My cousin knew this. My father is a serious alcoholic. My cousin came down over the Thanksgiving holiday and got my father really drunk. He always wanted this property, but my dad said he was going to leave it to me. After my father had been drunk for days, my cousin got him to sell him the land, worth over $100,000 for $10,000. They signed a deed and everything. I only learned about it after my dad went to rehab and I was going through his papers. My cousin refuses to give it back. What can I do?”
A: Margaret, I hope your father gets and stays sober. Your cousin has obviously taken advantage of a bad situation. However, he is not the first in California to have done so. California Civil Code Section 38 provides some guidance. It says: “A person entirely without understanding has no power to make a contract of any kind, but the person is liable for the reasonable value of things furnished to the person necessary for the support of the person or the person’s family.”
The question becomes, did your father’s intoxication render him “entirely without understanding?”
In a case not too dissimilar to this, the court provided some illustrative guidance stating “courts of equity, as a matter of public policy, do not incline on the one hand to lend assistance to a person who has obtained an agreement or deal from another in a state of intoxication; and, on the other hand, they are equally unwilling to assist the intoxicated party to get rid of his agreement or deal merely on the ground of his intoxication at the time. They will leave the parties to their ordinary remedies at law unless there is some fraudulent contrivance or some imposition.”
To help make this more understandable, a court acting in equity may order the property to be returned and the title rescinded. A court, though, can leave the parties to their own remedies, leaving them to sort out the differences and if one prevails the remedy may include a financial exchange.
In Swan v. Talbot “equity, therefore, will not assist a man to avoid a contract which he has entered into when drunk merely because when in his sober senses he may wish he had not entered into it. But, upon the other hand, it will not countenance fraudulent imposition. Gross inequality in the values exchanged — between the consideration moving to and that moving from the drunken party — is always received as evidence of imposition.”
In Swan, an intoxicated person sold personal property for value well under its worth. The court ruled whenever there is great weakness of mind in a person executing a contract, regardless of the cause, and the exchange for the property is grossly inadequate, imposition or undue influence will be inferred and equity will, with a proper and reasonable application, interfere and set the contract aside.
One 1935 case held that “a completely intoxicated person is generally placed on the same footing as persons of unsound mind. One deprived of reason and understanding by reason of drunkenness is, for the time, as unable to consent to the terms of a contract as are persons who lack mental capacity by reason of insanity or idiocy. A person who at the time of making a contract is completely intoxicated may avoid his contract notwithstanding the fact that his intoxicated condition may have been caused by his voluntary act and not by the contrivance of the other party to the contract.”
It will be your burden to demonstrate that your father was intoxicated, incompetent and couldn’t understand the consequences of his actions. While the law may allow the contract to be voidable, it will require that your father restore the $10,000 he received.
Show this article to your cousin and if he doesn’t re-deed the title to your father for $10,000, find a good general practitioner and arrange for a reasonable hourly rate. If he continues to drink to his detriment you may need to apply to act as his conservator so that you take control of his affairs.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.