Family Care Agreements Presumably Gratuitous

From time to time we publish summaries of interesting trust and estate cases.  While wealthlawblog doesn’t normally post about criminal cases, this particulary criminal case reminds us that family care agreements are presumably gratuitous and not contractual in nature.

State v. Nolen, Oregon Court of Appeals, August 3, 2011

The unemployed defendant, Nolen, moved in with his 70+ year-old mother, who suffered from diabetes, arthritis, and severely limited vision. They agreed Nolen would help his mother with her medical needs and she would continue to pay his bills and do household tasks such as cooking and laundry. After a few months of this arrangement, a dispute over money escalated and Nolen physically harmed his mother. After a jury trial he was convicted of criminal mistreatment and felony assault.

On the appeal of the criminal mistreatment claim only, Nolen argued "contractual agreement” in ORS 163.205 – the statute relied upon by the state for his criminal mistreatment conviction – meant a legally enforceable contract, which the state had failed to prove at trial.  The court of appeals agreed, turning to the century-old practice for Oregon courts to find that “agreements among family members concerning care and support are presumably gratuitous–that is, that they do not have contractual force:”

[I]n the normal course of human affairs persons living together in a close relationship perform services for each other without expectation of payment. Payment in the usual sense is not expected because the parties mutually care for each other’s needs. Also because services are performed out of a feeling of affection or a sense of obligation, not for payment.

York v. Place, 273 Or 947, 949-50 (1975).

One is left to ponder why the state declined to focus on the ORS 163.205(2)(d) "legal duty" based on Nolen’s “familial relationship” to the victim, rather than an unwritten, unenforceable contractual duty for family care.