We would all like to believe that family members should be able to trust each other and that parents, in their senior years, can rely on their adult children to act honorably. However, unfortunately, we all also recognize that reality all too often falls short of this ideal.

An example of what can happen when self-interest conflicts with familial relationships – and how difficult it sometimes is to untangle those conflicts – can be seen in an elder abuse case recently decided by the California Court of Appeal (Newman v Casey).

Early in 2021, according to court documents, Gracia Bovis was advised by her daughter, Marina Casey, to sign some documents that would, Bovis was told, protect the San Mateo County home she had lived in for over 50 years from property taxes that otherwise “would skyrocket.”

Bovis later learned that the documents she had signed actually transferred ownership of her home to her daughter.

Bovis then went to court, filing a “Request for Elder or Dependent Adult Abuse Restraining Order” which would bar her daughter from financially or physically abusing her.

She also requested two additional orders: one instructing Casey not to contact her “directly or indirectly” and to stay at least 100 yards away from her and her home, and a second one requiring Casey “to sign [a] rescission deed to return her home to her.”

Casey responded that the transfer of the home was “made because of Proposition 19,” to avoid a reassessment of the property that would “otherwise be triggered by an intergenerational transfer.”

Proposition 19 “added new restrictions” on changes of ownership, she told the court, and “prompted a rush on parent-child transfers to beat the deadline for filing reassessment exclusion forms on or before February 15, 2021.”

She provided the court with copies of a grant deed transferring the home from Bovis to Casey as a gift from parent to child; a will executed by Bovis on February 6, 2020; and an amendment executed on the same date to a 1997 trust drawn up by Bovis and her late husband.

These documents, she argued, showed that her mother had effectively disinherited Nicholas Bovis, Casey’s brother and Bovis’s son, because in the mother’s view Nicholas had “certain criminal issues” and she did not wish to provide any financial support to him.

Nicholas had recently started spending more time with his mother, and Casey said she was concerned that he was “exercising undue influence” over their mother to gain control of the property.

At a hearing, Bovis said that her daughter had “tricked me into signing papers” which she admitted she did not read. She claimed that Casey didn’t tell her the home would no longer be in her name, and had threatened to put her “in an old folk’s home.” She said that she wanted Casey out of her life and her house back.

When asked by the court why she had not read the documents, Bovid said, “There was so much confusion going on in this matter discussing this, and I just trusted her. It wouldn’t have entered my mind that she would do anything like that.”

For her part, Casey testified that she had not pressured her mother to amend the trust or sign the transfer deed. Moreover, her mother’s attorney had drafted the amendment, and her mother had signed the transfer in front of her attorney, “who told her she would no longer own her home.”

She testified further that her mother only began making accusations against her after her brother learned about the property transfer and realized that he would not inherit any portion of the property.

The trial court ruled that Bovis had not fully understood the results of signing the transfer of her home, and that the transaction involved “solely financial abuse unaccompanied by force or … abuse.”

The court issued a two-year restraining order that prohibited Casey from encumbering the property, “financially abusing or contacting” her mother, or coming within 100 yards of her or her home.

Bovis dropped her request for an order rescinding the transfer. She asked the court instead for an order to “void the transfer deed ab initio” or from its beginning. The court granted her request.

Casey appealed, challenging the restraining order and the decree voiding the transfer of the home.

By the time the appellate court took up the case, Bovis had died, making the restraining order moot or of no practical effect. However, court chose to address all the issues involved since they affected the order declaring the deed void.

The trial record indicated that Bovis, 86 at the time of these events, had been subjected to undue influence by Casey, her daughter and fiduciary, to which her age, incapacity, impaired cognitive function, and emotional distress may have made her vulnerable. Bovis likely also felt pressured by the Proposition 19 deadline, the court noted.

The appellate justices found that the economic consequences to Bovis of transferring her home to her daughter as a gift, which Bovis testified was not her intent, supported the conclusion that the transaction was financially abusive.

Ultimately, they said, Casey’s challenge to the lower court’s orders boiled down to a request to the court that it believe her testimony over that of her mother. As appellate justices, they said, their role is not to act as a trier of fact, but to decide whether there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s decision.

In this case, they concluded, there was substantial evidence to support the court’s decision – with one exception. The trial court did not have statutory authority to declare the deed from Bovis to Casey void ab initio. Whereas there were other civil remedies available to Bovis to undo the transfer, the elder abuse statutes under which she brought her request for a restraining order did not grant the court this power.

The justices ordered the lower court to reverse the stay-away order barring Casey from the home as well as its order voiding the transfer of deed ab initio. The parties were to bear their own costs on appeal.

By Lynda I. Chung