Q: I live in NY State. I have a question regarding the legality of a letter/document.
My wife and I own a home together in Orange County NY. Many years back, my wife under duress wrote a letter stating that upon the sale of our home, her mother would receive 1/3 of the profit from said sale. Is this letter legal. It was written as an email and only signed by my wife. The document was not signed by myself or by my mother-in-law, nor was it ever notarized.
A: Maybe as a contract between your wife and her mother, but not as a lien on property or any restriction on the sale. If you do not pay the mother, she could in theory sue under the contract, which seems to be likely unenforceable.
A: To be enforceable a promise to do something must be supported by a corresponding promise by the other party (e.g. I promise to do A if you promise to do B)--this is often referred to as consideration. So it is unclear whether the promise to pay an amount of money to your wife's mother is enforceable by the mother because it is unclear why the promise was made or whether it was supported by consideration. To the extent it was a binding promise (which is unclear) we also do not have sufficient information to determine whether duress would invalidate an otherwise enforceable obligation. Duress can render a contract unenforceable, but it depends on the circumstances. Because this is such a fact-heavy scenario, if you need help determining potential liability related to this real estate or if litigation is expected related to the same, it would be wise to seek counsel here in New York to protect her interests, both financial and legal.
The rebuttal presumption would be that if her mother was to receive 1/3 of the profits from the sale of the home, her mother would have been added to the deed as a 1/3 owner; this did not occur.
In the alternative...(and courts typically do NOT incorporate ancillary agreements as to the sale of the property aside from the what the deed reflects as far as % of ownership interest).. a more formal, authenticated agreement....signed by all parties who were in title to the home...with two attesting witnesses...with all signatures notarized.... existed that specified "she is entitled to 1/3 of the NET SALE proceeds of the home"....specifying the reason why....then PERHAPS a legal argument can be made that your mother in law was entitled to 1/3 of the NET SALE Proceeds.
That said, based on your fact pattern, I would argue that there is no right, claim, or entitlement by your mother in law to ANY proceeds received from the sale of the home.
The enforceability of the letter you're referring to hinges on a few key legal principles. In New York, contracts related to real estate transactions typically need to comply with the Statute of Frauds, meaning they must be in writing and signed by the party to be charged.
While an email can sometimes constitute a written agreement, the lack of your signature as a co-owner could be a significant factor in determining its legality. Furthermore, if your wife wrote the letter under duress, this could invalidate the agreement on grounds that it was not entered into voluntarily. However, without formal signatures, notarization, or consideration, it may not constitute a legally binding contract.
To understand the full legal implications and potential enforceability of this letter, you should consult with a lawyer who can review the specific details and advise on the appropriate course of action.
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