Madison - St. Clair Record

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Fifth District modifies Judge Babka's judgment in estate dispute

By The Madison County Record | Aug 18, 2015

MT. VERNON – St. Clair County associate judge Brian Babka unfairly rejected a woman’s evidence and testimony in a dispute over a dead man’s assets, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Aug. 11.

They honored a receipt that Babka ignored, showing Sandea White of Belleville surrendered a coin collection and vehicle titles to the estate of John Tate.

Lawyer Megan Nolan of Belleville signed the receipt for estate administrator Quinn Tate, son of John Tate.

Justice James Moore wrote, “No witness for the estate provided an inventory of the items returned in comparison to the receipt signed by the attorney.”

He also faulted Babka for ordering White to repay the estate $3,270.71 for charges she incurred on Tate’s credit card after he died.

“Ms. White testified that none of these transactions were made for her benefit,” Moore wrote.

“Although the circuit court did not find Ms. White to be credible, a finder of fact may not simply reject unrebutted testimony,” he wrote.

He couldn’t figure out how Babka calculated the payment he ordered.

“Ms. White was only questioned regarding transactions totaling $1,798.23,” he wrote.

Justices Judy Cates and Gene Schwarm concurred with Moore.

They didn’t grant White full relief, for they affirmed Babka’s finding that a fiduciary relationship existed between White and John Tate.

For that reason they ruled that she must reverse a $4,000 transfer and pay the estate $3,789.56 for a portable warehouse and electrical work.

A separate suit between White and the estate continues in federal court, over proceeds of a $32,640 life insurance policy.

White cared for Tate and a disabled adult daughter Karjuan, who lived with him.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Tate signed a blank check for electrical work White provided.

She filled in a figure of $1,325.

Nine days later, Tate signed a document granting custody of Karjuan to White.

He authorized White to “undertake all acts as are reasonable and necessary to protect the best interest and welfare” of Karjuan.

On Feb. 27, 2014, White transferred $4,000 from his account to hers.

He died the next day.

In the days that followed White spent $759.97 at Sam’s Club, for groceries and two home security cameras.

She spent $454.36 at Home Depot, for items she needed to change the locks and install the cameras in Karjuan’s home.

She paid Tate’s telephone bill, bought clothing for Karjuan, filled the gas tank of her vehicle, and bought a portable warehouse that she placed on her property.

On March 4, 2014, she wrote a check from his account for a headstone and transferred $20,000 from his account to hers.

On March 11, Quinn Tate filed a petition for appointment as estate administrator.

Babka appointed him, and he petitioned to recover property from White.

At a hearing on March 25, Babka gave White a week to return the $20,000 and two weeks to turn over items on a list that lawyer Nolan prepared for the estate.

At a hearing last June, White testified that John Tate instructed her to transfer money to her account to secure the house for Karjuan and cover her expenses.

She testified that he ordered the portable warehouse and instructed her to change the delivery to her property in anticipation of his death.

Babka admitted into evidence a document bearing lawyer Nolan’s signature, listing coins and vehicle titles that White claimed she delivered to Nolan’s office.

Quinn Tate’s wife, Mary Tate, testified that when she looked through the items she saw a bag of quarters but no silver coins, “just empty books.”

Last August, Babka ordered White to pay the estate $11,060.27, and to turn over the coins and vehicle titles.

He found that she owed a fiduciary duty to John Tate pursuant to the agreement for custody of Karjuan.

He wrote that White’s testimony about Tate’s wishes was not credible and that her testimony about the coins was “totally incredible.”

White disputed her fiduciary status on appeal, but the Fifth District affirmed it.

“The decedent trusted Ms. White with blank checks and debit cards linked to his personal bank accounts,” Moore wrote.

He wrote that Babka correctly presumed fraud in all transactions and gifts that benefited her, but that some transactions did not benefit her.

He wrote that Babka found White’s testimony on the coins incredible, “based on the simple fact that the estate was still demanding return of those items.”

“We find this aspect of the circuit court’s order to be against the manifest weight of the evidence,” he wrote.

“Although Mary Tate testified some quarters were in the boxes when she looked through them, ‘but the silver ones were not,’ there was no evidence regarding the chain of custody of the boxes in the interim, and there was no detail provided as to what coins were there and what coins were not.”

Curtis Blood of Alton represented White.

P.K. Johnson, Nolan’s employer, represented the estate.

On the day the Fifth District issued its opinion, U. S. Magistrate Judge Donald Wilkerson set an Aug. 19 hearing on the suit over John Tate’s life insurance.

Metropolitan Life filed the suit last September to prevent a suit against it over any distribution of the proceeds.

Met Life named Quinn Tate as a party, individually and as Karjuan’s guardian.

Met Life named another son, Sean Tate, as a party, as well as White.

Met Life deposited $32,640 with the court clerk and bowed out of the action.

Chief District Judge Michael Reagan has set trial in November. 

Met Life deposited $32,640 with the court clerk and bowed out of the case.

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