Those are the words of Nebraska Supreme Court judge William Cassel dissenting in the case of Wisner v. Vandelay Investments. The case result was that the estate of a 90 plus widow ended up losing real estate worth over a million dollars due to unpaid real estate taxes of $50,000.
Gladys Wisner owned 480 acres of Lincoln County, Nebraska real estate. In 2009 Gladys moved into a retirement community. In 2010, the real estate taxes became delinquent. In 2011, the county sold a tax certificate for the property. It yields interest at the rate of 14 percent. Because of that high rate, Nebraska has a very active market in these financial instruments. The purchaser of the tax certificate obtained a deed to the property via the statute in 2014.
A bank’s trust department was paying the widow’s bills but not her real estate taxes. Her son didn’t check the bill payment records closely. While the son did have a power of attorney for his mother, he did not direct that all of her mail be sent to him. The majority wrote, “[The son] failed to take any one of the steps to ensure the real estate taxes were paid.” In my view, that was the critical reason why the family of the widow lost this case.
Judge Cassel is an experienced judge. He was a district court judge in Ainsworth for 12 years before he was appointed to the Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court.
The legal issue was whether Gladys Wisner had a mental disorder as defined by Nebraska law. The trial court found that she did not have a mental disorder and the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed. As is often the case, there were competing experts. The doctor and expert for the estate was the attending physician for Gladys Wisner and he saw her every 60 days. The widow had suffered a series of small strokes and her mental capacity steadily deteriorated over the years. His opinion was that she suffered from a mental disorder from 2009 on and her ability to understand business and financial after 2009 was “very limited.”
Judge Cassel wrote in his dissent that the other doctor never personally examined Mrs. Wisner and relied solely on the medical records. On top of that, he didn’t even testify at the quiet title trial. Despite those facts, the Supreme Court deferred to the trial court’s decision that the doctor for Mrs. Wisner was less credible than the doctor for the investment company. Judge Cassel wrote that the appellate standard of review did not demand deference to the trial court on the issue of the credibility of the experts.
This is a very tough case and, as the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law.” My main lesson here is that if an adult child lives out-of-state and has a Power of Attorney, all mail should be directed to him or her. More importantly, if you or your loved ones own real estate you have to be very diligent in paying real estate taxes as failure to do so can mean losing it for a pittance.
Source: Wisner v. Vandelay Investments, 300 Neb. 825 (August 24, 2018).