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Court allows parol evidence in determining terms of ambiguous, hand-written contract

The court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting parol evidence relevant to the meaning of the parties' contract. Thus, it affirmed the jury verdict and the judgment entered for plaintiffs. Plaintiffs-Alvaro and Nonnenmacher wanted to build a handicap accessible addition to their existing home. They were social acquaintances of defendant-William J. Houttekier; defendant-Michael Houttekier is William's son. "Neither William nor Michael is a Michigan licensed contractor." Defendants disputed the contract included work on a second bathroom. Months into the project, after plaintiffs had paid defendants $85,762 (which included $15,762 for extras), "plaintiffs were unhappy with both the pace and the quality of workmanship." Alvaro told Michael that plaintiffs would pay no more until the job was finished. "Defendants refused to perform any more work and walked off the job." Plaintiffs filed this breach of contract case. At the end of the first day of trial, during the testimony of Alvaro, the last witness that day, defendants objected to "plaintiffs' counsel's asking about the meaning of portions of the contract on the basis that the parties had memorialized their agreement in a written contract, and the testimony was contrary to the parol evidence rule. The trial court overruled the objection without providing an explanation for its ruling. But on the next day of trial, before Alvaro's testimony continued, the trial court revisited its ruling on defendants' objection" and ruled that "the handwritten contract was patently ambiguous, thus permitting parol evidence" as to its meaning. Although the trial court did not base its ruling on this point, it was "undisputed that during the time defendants were working on the project, there were several oral modifications of the agreement, for which plaintiffs paid defendants an additional $15,762." Defendants noted in their brief that although the four-page handwritten memorandum was only signed by William, "it became, through 'a course of conduct between the parties,' an express contract." Further, the parol evidence rule "requires not only a written contract that has integrated the parties' negotiations, but also that the written terms of the contract be clear and unambiguous." The court's review of the four-page handwritten memorandum of the parties' contract convinced it that "the trial court did not err by ruling that it was ambiguous."

FAMILY LAW 83: A trial court can terminate a parent’s rights and permit a stepparent to adopt a child.

A trial court has discretion to terminate a parent’s rights and permit a stepparent to adopt a child when the conditions of MCL 710.51(6) are met. MCL 710.51(6)(b) requires the petitioner to establish that the other parent had the ability to visit, contact, or communicate with the children, and substantially failed or neglected to do so for a period of two years.

PROBATE 53: The trust agreement included an Incontestability Provision.

A settlor’s intent is to be carried out as nearly as possible. Generally, in terrorem clauses are valid and enforceable. However, a provision in a trust that purports to penalize an interested person for contesting the trust or instituting another proceeding relating to the trust shall not be given effect if probable cause exists for instituting a proceeding contesting the trust or another proceeding relating to the trust.

FAMILY LAW 82: Court stated it would terminate the personal protection order (PPO) after the parties present documentation of the initiation of the divorce proceedings.

However, the trial court concluded that these matters should, in fact, be in the province and the jurisdiction of the Family Division and in that respect, having issued a personal protection order, the Court stated it would terminate the personal protection order after the parties present documentation of the initiation of the divorce proceedings.

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PROBATE 51: Trust filed a petition to determine title to credit union account.

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FAMILY LAW 77: Court awarded plaintiff sole legal custody; defendant was unwilling to work with plaintiff.

For joint custody to work, parents must be able to agree with each other on basic issues in child rearing including health care, religion, education, day to day decision making and discipline and they must be willing to cooperate with each other in joint decision making. If two equally capable parents are unable to cooperate and to agree generally concerning important decisions affecting the welfare of their children, the court has no alternative but to determine which parent shall have sole custody of the children.

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