This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. ß 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In Re:† Estate of Cletus W. Snyker, a/k/a C. W. Snyker,
a/k/a Cletus Wilfred Snyker, a/k/a Clete W. Snyker, Decedent.
Ramsey County District Court
File No. P3975536
James P. Mulvahill, Luther, Heckt, Cameron & Mulvahill, P.L.L.P., 601 Carlson Parkway, Suite 750, Minnetonka, MN† 55305 (for appellants Rosemary Mackie, et al.)
Richard A. Grayson, 50 East Fifth Street, Suite 201, St. Paul, MN† 55101; and
Michael G. Kula, 1732 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN† 55105 (for respondent Gregory King)
††††††††††† Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D†† O P I N I O N
††††††††††† Appellants Donald Snyker, Rosemary Mackie, Jerome Snyker, and Kenneth Snyker challenge the district courtís order denying their motion for imposition of a constructive trust against respondent, the estate of Cletus Snyker.† Appellants claim that Cletus, who was their uncle, misappropriated approximately $380,000 in municipal bearer bonds belonging to their father, Omer Snyker.† We affirm.
D E C I S I O N
Appellants first argue that the district court erred as a matter of law by considering evidence of joint purchase by Cletus and Omer Snyker in determining the rightful ownership of the bearer bonds.† A reviewing court is not bound by and need not give deference to a trial courtís decision on a purely legal issue.† Frost-Benco Elec. Assín v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Commín, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984).
Appellants argue that because ownership of bearer bonds is determined exclusively by possession, and because the bonds were undisputedly in Omerís possession at the time of his death, this was sufficient to establish Omerís full legal ownership.†† We disagree.† Appellants rely almost exclusively on First Trust Co. of St. Paul v. Matheson, in which the supreme court held that Minnesota could exercise jurisdiction over bearer bonds physically located in a corporate trusteeís Minnesota office.† First Trust Co. of St. Paul v. Matheson, 187 Minn. 468, 246 N.W. 1 (1932).† The court noted that because bearer bonds are tangible, corporeal property, Minnesota had jurisdiction to proceed against them in rem or quasi in rem.† Id. at 477-78, 246 N.W. at 5.† Appellants cite in particular the courtís recognition that a change in ownership of bearer bonds can take place simply by manual transfer.† Id. at 473, 246 N.W. at 3.
But nothing in Matheson, a case involving a jurisdictional dispute, suggests that possession is the sole determinative factor in assessing the rightful ownership of bearer bonds.† To the contrary, under long-standing Minnesota law, possession of a negotiable promissory note payable to the bearer is only prima facie evidence of ownership.† Robinson v. Smith, 62 Minn. 62, 63, 64 N.W. 90, 91 (1895); see also Batchelder v. City of Faribault, 212 Minn. 251, 253, 3 N.W.2d 778, 779 (1942) (noting plaintiffsí production of bearer bonds was prima facie proof of ownership).† Thus, Omerís possession of the bonds at the time of his death is not conclusive evidence of his ownership, but rather is evidence that can be overcome by sufficiently convincing evidence to the contrary.†
Other jurisdictions have specifically recognized that
[b]onds payable to bearer are title documents of such a nature that the identity of the true owners as well as the nature and extent of the ownership depends upon extrinsic matters.
In re Estate of Girndt, 590 P.2d 1038, 1042 (Kan. 1979); see also Estate of Steppuhn v. VanWyk, 377 N.W.2d 83, 86 (Neb. 1985) (ďSince bearer bonds do not indicate title on their face, one must look to other evidence to determine title.Ē).† In Girndt, the court considered evidence of purchase history and testimony from the decedentís investment broker in determining the ownership of bearer bonds discovered in decedentís safe-deposit box.† Girndt, 590 P.2d at 1041-42; see also Gilbert v. Brown, 693 P.2d 1330, 1334-35 (Or. Ct. App. 1985) (finding bearer bonds that decedent left with attorney belonged to surviving wife, based on her testimony that decedent had told her the bonds would belong to her and evidence that the bonds were purchased from a joint account).† Cf. Whitenight v. Whitenight, 278 A.2d 912, 914-15 (Pa. 1971) (holding surviving spouseís possession of bonds in jointly owned home insufficient to establish her ownership in light of evidence that decedent purchased bonds with individual funds).
Because Omer Snykerís possession of the bearer bonds upon his death was at most prima facie evidence of ownership, we conclude the district court did not err as a matter of law by considering additional evidence concerning ownership of the bonds.
It is not the role of the appellate courts to reconcile conflicting evidence, and a district courtís findings of fact are given great deference and shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.† Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999).† We will not disturb the district courtís findings if there is reasonable evidence to support them.† Id. †A reviewing court gives due regard to the opportunity of the district court to judge the credibility of witnesses.† Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
††††††††††† Appellants argue that the district court erred in concluding that the facts do not justify imposition of a constructive trust.† We disagree.† A court may impose a constructive trust based on equity when clear and convincing evidence exists that the trust is necessary to avoid unjust enrichment.†† In re Estate of Vittorio, 546 N.W.2d 751, 755 (Minn. App. 1996).† A constructive trust arises
[w]here a person holding title to property is subject to an equitable duty to convey it to another on the ground that he would be unjustly enriched if he were permitted to retain it.
Knox v. Knox, 222 Minn. 477, 482, 25 N.W.2d 225, 228 (1946).†
††††††††††† Appellants claim that a constructive trust is required because Cletus improperly withheld their equitable interest in the bonds.† But appellants have not directly disputed the district courtís finding that Omer contributed $160,000 toward the joint purchase of the bonds and this finding supports the district courtís conclusion that a constructive trust is not appropriate.
††††††††††† Because both Cletus and Omer are deceased and the documents are not conclusive, the court made its determination by considering extrinsic evidence concerning their respective rights of ownership over the bonds.† This evidence included:† (1) testimony from Cletusís daughter, grandson, and investment broker confirming that Cletus spoke of his ownership interest in the bonds on many occasions; (2) testimony by Cletusís attorney that Cletus represented to him that the extent of Omerís interest in the bonds totaled $160,000; (3) appellantsí testimony that they believed Cletus to be honest and trustworthy; (4) provisions in the wills of Cletus and his wife, Lillian, bequeathing $40,000 to each of the four appellants followed by Cletusís signing of a codicil deleting this provision from his will upon Lillianís death because the bequest from Lillian had vested.
††††††††††† We conclude that this evidence is sufficient to support the courtís finding that Omer contributed $160,000 toward the joint purchase of the bonds.† Because over the years each of the appellants received more than $32,000 in distributions from Cletus in addition to $40,000 apiece from Lillianís estate, the district court correctly concluded that appellants failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that imposition of a constructive trust is warranted.