Although decedent William Murray signed a letter in 2006, which his daughters claim acknowledged his continuing debt to their late mother’s estate, the letter was too equivocal to constitute an admission that the debt was due and unpaid. Because the statute of limitations had expired on the debt, the decedent-Father’s estate was entitled to summary judgment on the claim of Mother’s estate.
We affirm summary judgment for Father’s estate.
Minnie Murray (Minnie or Mother) and William Murray (William or Father) divorced in 1967, and William acknowledged a $142,685 debt to Minnie. Minnie died later that year. In 1980, William agreed to make payments to Mother’s estate to repay the debt. William stopped making payments in 1986.
When William died in 2007, Mother’s estate filed a claim for payment of the balance of the debt.
Even though the decedents’ daughters agreed among themselves how they would hold the proceeds of Mother’s estate’s claim against their father once it was liquidated, they did nothing to transfer ownership of the claim from Mother’s estate to themselves or to change the real party in interest. Where Mother’s estate was never closed, the estate’s appointed foreign personal representative had standing to bring its claim against Father’s estate.
Statute of Limitations
On February 9, 2006, the personal representative of Mother’s estate—the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth—asked William to sign a letter acknowledging his debt to Mother’s estate. William signed the letter, but it was insufficient to renew a debt on which the statute of limitations had already run.
Although the 2006 letter identified the specific debt and acknowledged the debt was “due,” it then said William owed the debt to Mother’s estate “whether on a currently due basis or as part of debt that will be due upon [William’s] death as a valid claim to [the daughters].” A statement that the debt was either currently due or alternatively would be due upon William’s death was not an unequivocal admission the debt was due.
Moreover, the letter indicated the debt was due “both legally and as our father” and referred to the debt as an “honor debt.” These statements were equivocal because by signing the letter, William seems to have acknowledged only a moral obligation and not a legal one to repay this debt that is now over two decades old.
Because the letter contained equivocal language and an expression that was inconsistent with William’s intent to repay the debt, we find this letter was insufficient to demonstrate an unequivocal admission that the debt was due and unpaid. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Father’s estate as to this issue.
The doctrine of laches was inapplicable because this case involves a legal claim to collect on a debt. Rather, as we have concluded, the statute of limitations barred the claims of Mother’s estate.
Elizabeth was the sole proprietor of a business, Stylesetters, which had performed services for and was allegedly owed money by William at the time of his death. Elizabeth relies on a letter from William dated July 21, 2007, reaffirming his intention to repay the debt to Stylesetters. However, judicial estoppel bars Stylesetters’ claim against Father’s estate.
In 2006, Elizabeth was involved in litigation in New York pertaining to William’s position as trustee of a charitable trust. Elizabeth alleged that William’s competence was “severely impaired.”
Given that Elizabeth is the sole proprietor of Stylesetters, she and Stylesetters are in privity. Both this case and the trust litigation presented a question of fact concerning William’s competence and how his competence or lack thereof affected the conduct in question. Although the trust litigation settled and there was no judicial determination as to William’s mental capacity, Elizabeth was reinstated as a trustee and therefore received a benefit.
Furthermore, the position of Elizabeth in the trust litigation—that William was incompetent—and the position of Stylesetters here—that William was competent to acknowledge a debt of hundreds of thousands of dollars—are totally inconsistent, and the time periods at issue overlapped. The circuit court did not err by granting summary judgment in Father’s estate’s favor as to Stylesetters’ claim based on the doctrine of judicial estoppel.
Murray v. Estate of Murray (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-005-22, 17 pp.) (James Lockemy, C.J.) Appealed from Charleston County (Jennifer McCoy, Circuit Court Judge; Tamara Curry, Probate Court Judge) George Kefalos, Oana Dobrescu Johnson, Barry Baker and Stephen Michael Slotchiver for appellants; Robert Hood, Mary Agnes Hood Craig and Deborah Harrison for respondent. S.C. App.