Byrne v. Laura
52 Cal.App.4th 1054, 60 Cal.Rptr.2d 908 (1997)

  • Byrne lived with a man named Lavezzo, but they never married. Lavezzo died.
    • They never married because Byrne had handicapped children who would lose their insurance benefits if she remarried.
    • Byrne and Lavezzo had lived together for 5 years and their possessions and bank accounts were co-mingled.
    • Lavezzo had an obsolete will that gave everything to his (predeceased) parents. or if they were not alive to someone Suy.
  • Lavezzo died. Suy contacted Byrne and told her to move out of the house or pay rent.
  • Byrne filed a creditor’s claim against Lavezzo’s estate claiming that she was the sole and exclusive owner of all the property. The claim was denied.
  • Byrne sued the estate (represented by Laura) for several things:
    • Byrne argued that there was an oral agreement between her and Lavezzo to provide for her needs for the rest of her life.
    • Byrne also argued that the property was held in a joint tenancy, even if that was never in writing.
    • Byrne argued that she alternately deserved money for services provided (aka quantum meruit) to Lavezzo while he was alive.
    • Laura countersued for unpaid rent that Byrne racked up living in Lavezzo’s house after he died.
  • The Trial Court found for Laura in summary judgment, dismissed Byrne’s claims, and charged her $2k in unpaid rent. Byrne appealed.
    • The Trial Court did allow Byrne to assert her quantum meruit claim, but everthing else was thrown out.
  • The Appellate Court reversed and remanded for trial.
    • The Appellate Court found that Byrne’s claims rested on a finding of fact about Lavezzo’s promises, and could not be adjudicated via summary judgment.
      • Since Byrne relied on Lavezzo’s promises, there was an equitable estoppel issue.
        • Byrne had changed her life, by quitting her job and moving in with Lavezzo. That counts as reliance on a promise, which makes her eligible for getting their contract enforced due to equitable estoppel.
          • Remember that from Contract Law?
        • Was the reliance enough to justify equitable estoppel? That was for a jury to decide.
    • In general, wills fall under the Statute of Frauds and must be in writing, but there were factual issues of what Lavezzo was providing for in a will, what was an inter vivos gift, and what was a contract to provide for Byrne’s needs, etc. So the fact that there was no written will did not preclude Byrne’s claims.
      • Equity can get around the Statute of Frauds.
  • This case was pretty shocking in that the Court used equitable estoppel in order to invalidate an otherwise valid will!
    • This ruling is not followed in all jurisdictions.