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REAL ESTATE 65: Determining that it could not conclude the trial court erred in its factual findings, and that it did not err in reforming a 2005 deed, the court affirmed the ruling that defendants were fee simple owners of the disputed 50-foot area

This case arose from a real-property dispute between brothers, as well as their respective wives. After a bench trial, the trial court rendered its findings of fact. The trial court determined that plaintiffs did not prove that excluding the Disputed Property from Plaintiffs’ 1994 deed was a mistake. The trial court determined that this exclusion was an intentional decision. The trial court determined, however, that there was a mutual mistake regarding the conveyance of Defendants’ Property to Plaintiffs when the improvements to the home were located on the Disputed Property. The trial court determined that defendants were entitled to reformation of the 2005 Deed to conform it to third party defendants’ intent based on an innocent-misrepresentation theory, notwithstanding the fact that reformation of the 2005 Deed conflicted with the 2018 Disputed Property Deed later executed by third party defendants. The trial court therefore entered judgment in favor of defendants and against plaintiffs. The trial court determined that defendants had obtained fee-simple title to the Disputed Property as of July 27, 2005. The trial court also ordered that the 2018 Disputed Property Deed and the improvements deed were null and void. This appeal followed.  

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court reviews de novo the equitable action to quiet title. This Court also reviews de novo the proper interpretation of legal instruments, such as deeds or contracts. Yet, this Court reviews for clear error a trial court’s factual findings in a bench trial. “A factual finding is clearly erroneous [when], after reviewing the entire record, this Court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Finally, this Court reviews de novo a trial court’s decision to grant the equitable relief of reformation of a contract or deed.

PRIMA FACIE CASE OF TITLE

Plaintiffs argue on appeal that they established a prima facie case of title to the Disputed Property and that defendants failed to establish that they had superior right or title to the Disputed Property.  Quiet title actions are governed by MCL 600.2932, which provides: Any person, whether he is in possession of the land in question or not, who claims any right in, title to, equitable title to, interest in, or right to possession of land, may bring an action in the circuit courts against any other person who claims or might claim any interest inconsistent with the interest claimed by the plaintiff, whether the defendant is in possession of the land or not.  Although the trial court did not expressly address which set of parties established a prima facie case of title to the Disputed Property, the trial court impliedly did so when it determined that defendants had obtained fee-simple title to the Disputed Property as of July 27, 2005, and that all subsequent deeds to the Disputed Property were null and void. Based on the disputed testimony presented at the bench trial, we cannot conclude that the trial court clearly erred in reaching its findings of fact. After hearing testimony from multiple witnesses and visiting the real property, the trial court determined that the 50-foot area of land was intentionally excluded from the Plaintiffs’ 1994 deed, and that there was a mutual mistake regarding the conveyance of Defendants’ Property to Plaintiffs when the improvements to the home were located on the Disputed Property.

MUTUAL MISTAKE

Plaintiffs also argue that the trial court erroneously reformed the 2005 Deed because there was no mutual mistake to support the reformation. Regarding reformation based on a mutual mistake, a party seeking reformation must demonstrate that there was a mutual mistake by clear and convincing evidence. Based on the evidence and testimony presented during the bench trial, the trial court found that Third Party Defendants intended to convey to defendants the entire house and improvements as a part of the 2005 conveyance. Because the house and improvements were partially located on the Disputed Property, the trial court concluded that there was a mistake in the 2005 Deed to the extent that Harold and Donna conveyed to defendants the physical structures without conveying the land on which the house and improvements were located. The trial court’s reformation of the 2005 Deed fulfilled Third Party Defendants’ intent to convey to defendants the entire house and improvements at 2716 Slocum Road. We conclude that the trial court did not err by reforming the 2005 Deed.

ASSISTANCE WITH PROPERTY ISSUES

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