Kansas Supreme Court Decision – November 21st 2008

This post originally appeared at The Kansas Progress, before this blog went live. Consequently the date in the title does not tally with the date on the post.

November 21st. The Kansas Supreme Court today handed down a single decision. Ruling unanimously in the case of Rector v. Tatham No. 97,725 in an opinion authored by Justice Beier, the Court held that under Kansas law prospective heirs can make contracts to assign their expectancy interests to other people. In other words, an expected inheritance is a transferable piece of property.

The question arose in a messy family dispute between siblings Mary Rector, Clifford Tatham, Patricia Disque, and Ruth Strickland (now deceased) over their late mother’s estate. Before the mother’s death, Rector had agreed to purchase her house. The terms of the agreement were that any funds remaining on her mothers’ death from this purchase would return to her. When her mother died, the remaining funds were allocated to the siblings evenly, per the mother’s will. The agreement under dispute had been signed by Rector, the mother and two of her siblings.

Rector sued in District Court but the siblings filed a motion to dismiss (which was granted) on the grounds that the cause of action was not one of the three explicitly allowed reasons to contest the distribution of an estate under probate law. The Court of Appeals reversed this decision, and the Supreme Court upholds the Court of Appeals in doing so on the grounds that under Kansas law an expected interest in a property can be assigned in a contract. This case therefore does not come under the statutorily defined rules of probate, but under more general contract law. In doing so the Court reached back to three pre-war cases which demonstrate the ability to carry out this kind of assignment. Further the court held that the doctrine of Promissory Estoppel would also be a valid basis for Rector’s claim to rest on. That is the idea that if a promise is made to someone who then acts to their detrminent on the assumption that it is true, the promise is enforceable.

The case now moves back to the district court for an assessment on the merits of the claim. The ruling today merely acknowledges that Rector is asserting a valid legal theory, which is assumed to be correct for the purposes of the appellate process. The remainder of the case will determine if her claim has merit.

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