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Dixon v. Dixon

Supreme Court of Alaska

October 20, 2017

DANIEL DIXON, Appellant,

         Appeal from the Superior Court No. IKE-15-00056 CI of the State of Alaska, First Judicial District, Ketchikan, William B. Carey, Judge.

          David S.Katz, Anchorage, for Appellant.

          Leif Thompson, Leif Thompson Law Office, Ketchikan, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.


          MAASSEN, Justice.


         A mother and son dispute ownership of a house in Ketchikan. The son contends that his mother gave him the property following her husband's death, and that he spent years repairing and renovating it on the understanding that it was his. His mother argues that she still owns it. She contends that she agreed to transfer title only if her son repaired the property and paid off the mortgage, which he failed to do.

         Following a bench trial on the son's quiet title claim, the superior court found that he failed to prove his mother's intent to transfer the property. Because the superior court properly applied the relevant legal doctrines and did not clearly err in its findings of fact, we affirm its judgment.


         A. Facts

         In 1982 David Dixon purchased a one-bedroom house on Warren Street in Ketchikan. In 1998 he conveyed the property by quitclaim deed to himself and his wife, Carolyn Dixon. Carolyn testified at trial that the couple lived in the Warren Street house until 2002; thereafter David continued using it as a workshop and art studio.

         David died in 2005, and Carolyn had little interest in dealing with the Warren Street property. Her son Dan Dixon proposed that she refinance the house - encumbered by an approximately $30, 000 mortgage - and offered to renovate it. According to Carolyn, Dan "was supposed to fix [the house] up and rent it and ... pay the mortgage, pay any expenses that came up, and then keep the rest of the money." Dan testified that "the goal was [to] get [the house] refinanced in [his] name" and "get [Carolyn's] name off the mortgage"; he would then pay Carolyn back whatever she had to lend him to make this happen.

         Carolyn signed a quitclaim deed on December 16, 2007. The deed says that she "convey[ed] and quitclaim[ed]" her interest in the Warren Street house to Austin Dixon, Dan's son. According to Dan, Carolyn named Austin as the grantee at Dan's request; Dan "wanted [the house] to be for [his] son, " but he was also concerned about "IRS issues" if the house was deeded to him. He testified, though, that he was sure Carolyn would have made out the deed in his name if he had asked her to.

         The quitclaim deed was not notarized or formally witnessed. Carolyn gave it to Dan, but neither he nor Austin recorded it. Carolyn testified at trial that she did not believe the deed could effectively transfer her interest in the house until the mortgage had been paid off.

         In 2008 Carolyn refinanced the Warren Street property. She used the money from the refinance to pay off the first mortgage; she also added $33, 000 of the proceeds to a shared checking account Dan could access for house-related expenses, including mortgage payments. Dan eventually depleted the account, apparently mostly on repairs to the house, though some of the money may have gone toward his dental bills and other unrelated debt. Between 2007 and 2014 Carolyn made ten of the mortgage payments, at Dan's request; Dan apparently made the rest of the payments out of the shared account.

         Between 2008 and 2010 Dan made a number of repairs and renovations to the house, including plumbing and electrical work, refraining and foundation work, floor refmishing, repainting, and remodeling the kitchen and bathroom. He claimed he paid for the work with a combination of the refinance money from Carolyn and his own money. At trial he was unable to give any accounting of these expenses, and he could not distinguish between what he paid for with his own money and what he paid for with money from Carolyn.

         Dan lived in the house with his son for about a year in 2010. Starting in 2011 he rented it out for the summer season. Between 2011 and 2014 he found three different tenants and brought in approximately $17, 000 in rental income.

         In spring 2014 Carolyn's insurance company informed her that the policy on the Warren Street house had to be rewritten to reflect that the property was no longer owner-occupied. Carolyn asked for a landlord policy instead but was informed that the house would need to be rewired before it could be insured at all. Around this time Carolyn also learned that the utilities were about to be cut off because the bill had not been paid, and she received notice from the mortgage company that the checking account she shared with Dan was overdrawn and would not cover the monthly mortgage payment. Carolyn emailed Dan in May 2014, telling him that she had closed the shared bank account and her account with the utility company. She also informed Dan that she had written the mortgage company to let it know he would be handling the mortgage from then on. When Dan failed to respond she resent the email a week later, following up with a handwritten note on the June mortgage statement. In both the handwritten note and the email, Carolyn wrote, "The house is yours."

         But Dan was in Seattle for the summer, and he made no further mortgage payments. And though he apparently planned to rewire the house himself in September, the insurance company informed Carolyn that it had to be done by late July in order to preserve coverage. Carolyn "realized [she] had to take ... the house over" to address the wiring issue and to pick up the mortgage payments. After the rewiring was done she had her son Bruce and his daughter Amanda remove Dan's belongings, board up the house, and change the locks.

         But Dan managed to get back inside. Carolyn eventually sought police assistance to remove him, and in October 2014 she obtained a 20-day restraining order to keep him away from the house.

         B. Proceedings

         In February 2015, after repeated calls to the police about Dan's alleged trespass on the Warren Street property, Carolyn filed a complaint to recover the house from him and in March sought a writ of assistance, which was granted. Dan filed an answer to Carolyn's complaint and ...

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