This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).

 

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C7-00-663

 

 

In Re:

Estate of Raymond Dykema.

 

 

Filed November 7, 2000

Affirmed

Toussaint, Chief Judge

 

 

Hennepin County District Court

File No. P4941329

 

 

Robert R. Weinstine, Melissa Ann Grant, Craig S. Krummen, Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A., 3000 Dain Rauscher Plaza, 60 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellants, the residuary beneficiaries, personal representatives and the special administrator of the estate of Raymond Dykema)

 

Ronald J. Riach, Franke & Riach, P.A., 200 Rosedale Towers, 1700 West Highway 36, Roseville, MN 55113 (for respondent Patricia Davis)

 

 

            Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Harten, Judge, and Huspeni, Judge.*


U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge

            Through an appeal from a final order in a probate matter and a notice of review, appellants and respondent challenge the district court’s interpretation of the codicil to the will.  Appellants also contend that the district court erred in dismissing the petition of the special administrator seeking imposition of a constructive trust based on fraud.  We affirm, holding that the district court correctly interpreted the codicil and properly dismissed the petition for failure to state a claim.

FACTS

            Raymond Dykema executed a will on September 24, 1990, in which he devised one-quarter of his estate to each of his three children and the remaining quarter to his grandchildren.  Pursuant to a January 7, 1994, antenuptial agreement, Dykema executed a codicil to his will on March 11, 1994.  The codicil provided that, in the event of his death, his second wife, respondent Patricia Davis, would receive $1,000,000 in cash, title to their condominium, and certain personal property, as well as $10,000 per month for living expenses until she received $500,000 of the $1,000,000 cash bequest.  Dykema and Davis married on March 24, 1994, and Dykema died unexpectedly on July 5, 1994, leaving an estate of some $27,000,000.

            The estate was admitted into probate in August 1994.  The residual beneficiaries then obtained information that led them to suspect that Davis had fraudulently obtained Dykema’s consent to marry.  The district court appointed a special administrator, who filed a petition challenging Davis’s rights as surviving spouse under the codicil.  In a prior appeal, this court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Davis, finding the marriage valid.  In re Dykema, No. C5-96-669, 1996 WL 589104, at *2 (Minn. App. Oct. 15, 1996).

            In the proceedings relevant to this appeal, the district court authorized the special administrator in 1998 to investigate whether a constructive trust should be imposed on the assets Davis received in the codicil, on the grounds that Davis fraudulently induced Dykema to grant her an interest in his estate.  The special administrator then petitioned for imposition of a constructive trust, and Davis moved to dismiss the petition pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P., 12.03.  In October 1998, the district court granted the motion and dismissed the petition.

In December 1998, the district court ordered appellants to distribute $500,000 to Davis and to cease making the $10,000 monthly payments.  In March 2000, the district court resolved issues concerning the interpretation of the codicil, ruling that (1) the $10,000 monthly payments were not an offset to the cash gift; (2) the December 1998 lump sum payment of $500,000 was attributable to the principal, not the interest, due on the $1,000,000 gift, ending appellants’ obligation to make the $10,000 monthly payments; and (3) there was no cap on the $10,000 monthly payments, (in apparent contradiction to an earlier order issued by the court) and appellants were thus not entitled to an offset.  The residual beneficiaries, personal representative, and special administrator appealed, challenging the district court’s determination as to the amount of the distribution attributable to principal and to interest.

D E C I S I O N

            On review, this court will examine the district court findings under a clearly erroneous standard and review conclusions of law de novo.  In re Estate of Simpkins, 446 N.W.2d 188, 190 (Minn. App. 1989).

            When construing a will, the court seeks to ascertain the testator’s actual intent, considering it “in light of the surrounding circumstances” at the time of its execution.  In re Estate of Arend, 373 N.W.2d 338, 342 (Minn. App. 1985).  If possible, the court should give effect to every provision.  In re Will of Wyman, 308 N.W.2d 311, 315 (Minn. 1981).  Whether the language of a will is ambiguous as a question of law.  In re Estate of Zagar, 491 N.W.2d 915-16 (Minn. App. 1992).  If no ambiguity exists, the court will not consider extrinsic evidence.  Arend, 373 N.W.2d at 342.

I.

            Both parties argue that the language of the codicil is not ambiguous, although they differ in their interpretation of its provisions.  The codicil, which was executed pursuant to an antenuptial agreement Davis and Dykema entered into before their marriage, provided that in the event of Dykema’s death, Davis would receive title to their condominium and certain household goods and furnishings.  In addition, the codicil stated:

                                    2.3       I give to my wife, Patricia Davis, the sum of One Million Dollars ($1,000,000.00) cash.  * * *

 

                                    * * * *

 

                                    2.5       In addition to the above special gifts to my wife, I direct my Personal Representative to pay to my wife, Patricia Davis, during the course of administration of my estate, and calculated from the date of my death, the sum of ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00) per month for living expenses.  Payments under this paragraph 2.5 shall continue only until my wife receives at least $500,000.00 in partial payment of the cash gift described in paragraph 2.3.

 

Id. (emphasis added).

            Initially, we address whether the $10,000 monthly payments were to be offset against the $1,000,000 gift, as appellants argue, or whether the payments were in addition to the gift, as Davis contends.  In support of their argument, appellants focus on the language that states the payments are to continue only until Davis receives $500,000 “in partial payment of the cash gift.”  This argument, however, ignores the language that provides that the monthly payments are “in addition to the above special gifts.”  Had Dykema wished to make the payments an offset, he could have accomplished this by so stating explicitly.  We agree with the district court that under the plain language of the codicil, considered in light of the surrounding circumstances, the $10,000 monthly payments were not to be offset against the cash gift, but instead were an additional gift.

The second point of contention is whether after the March 2000 order, the law-of-the-case doctrine required the district court to interpret the codicil so as to limit the amount Davis was entitled to receive through the $10,000 monthly payments.  Appellants claim that under the law-of-the-case doctrine, the district court was bound by an earlier order in which it appears to have capped the amount Davis could receive through the monthly payments.  The law-of-the-case doctrine may apply to issues that were decided “in earlier stages of the same case.”  In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 375 (Minn. 1990) (citations omitted).  The district court, however, is not bound by its earlier decisions and may reverse or modify its prior rulings.  Employers Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Breaux, 516 N.W.2d 188, 191 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. Sept. 16, 1994).  Further, Davis filed a notice of review, so she may challenge adverse district court rulings.  See Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 106 (allowing respondent to obtain review by filing notice of review).  We decline to hold that the district court was bound by the earlier order on this point.

Davis raises a challenge to the district court’s determination as to the amount of the distribution attributable to principal and to interest, affecting the continuation of the $10,000 monthly payments.  The codicil provided that the $10,000 monthly payments would continue until Davis had received $500,000 of the $1,000,000 bequest.  In December 1998, the district court ordered the estate to distribute $500,000 to Davis and to cease making the $10,000 payments.  In March 2000, the district court ordered the personal representatives to pay another $500,000 to complete the payment of the general devise.

            It is undisputed that general pecuniary devises bear interest, beginning one year after the personal representative is appointed.  Minn. Stat. § 524.3-904 (1998).  The parties agree Davis is entitled to interest on the $1,000,000 gift under this provision.  At issue is whether the $500,000 payment distributed pursuant to the court’s December 1998 order should be attributed first to the interest due, with only the remaining portion (which would be less than $500,000) attributed to principal. Davis contends that under the general rule when a partial payment is made, it is applied first to discharge interest that has accrued, with any surplus then allocated to the principal.  Betcher v. Hodgman, 63 Minn. 30, 31, 65 N.W. 96, 96 (1895).  If so, Davis reasons that the $10,000 monthly payments should have continued until she received the full $500,000.

            We are addressing an issue of the construction of a will, in which the intent of the testator governs.  We agree with the district court that under the language of the codicil, the $500,000 lump-sum distribution made to Davis in December 1998 satisfied the $500,000 principal amount referred to in paragraph 2.5 and terminated the $10,000 monthly payments for living expenses.

II.

            In addition to resolving issues relating to the interpretation of the codicil, we address the district court’s dismissal of the special administrator’s petition for imposition of a constructive trust under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.03.  On review, this court must address whether the complaint sets forth a legally sufficient claim for relief.  Elzie v. Commissioner of Pub. Safety, 298 N.W.2d 29, 32 (Minn. 1980).

            A party may bring an action for unjust enrichment “based on failure of consideration, fraud, mistake, and situations where it would be morally wrong for one party to enrich himself at the expense of another.”  Anderson v. DeLisle, 352 N.W.2d 794, 796 (Minn. App. 1984) (citations omitted), review denied (Minn. Nov. 8, 1984). But a court may not interfere with contractual rights based on unjust enrichment to protect the parties from the consequences of their contract.  See Cady v. Bush, 283 Minn. 105, 110, 166 N.W.2d 358, 362 (1969).

            Appellants explicitly state that they are not challenging the validity of the antenuptial agreement or the codicil.  Nor are appellants claiming marital misconduct as a basis for their claim.  Instead, they contend that Davis fraudulently acquired her interest in Dykema’s estate, justifying a cause of action for a constructive trust for the benefit of the residual beneficiaries.  See Patey v. Peaslee, 131 A.2d 433, 436 (N.H. 1957) (allowing common-law action for constructive trust based on its equitable nature, independent of inheritance statutes, but imposing heavy burden on plaintiffs); but see Pogue v. Pogue, 434 So.2d 262, 263-64 (Ala. App. 1983) (refusing to allow action for unjust enrichment to affect descent and distribution statutes).

The transfer of property between spouses at death is governed by statute.  Minn. Stat. § 524.3-101 (1998).  A surviving spouse has a statutory right to elect to take the percentage of the estate specified by statute.  Minn. Stat. § 524.2-202 (1998).  A spouse may waive the statutory right to elect only by entering into an agreement under Minn. Stat. § 519.11 (1998) (providing for antenuptial and postnuptial contracts).  Minn. Stat. §  524.2-213 (1998).  We find no support for appellants’ proposition that a party may bring a common-law cause of action outside of the descent and distribution statutes.

            The antenuptial agreement negotiated by the parties and drafted by their lawyers was executed pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 519.11.  Appellants do not challenge the merits of the antenuptial agreement as being procedurally or substantively unfair, and the marriage has already been ruled valid.  As the district court ruled, there are no grounds for this cause of action and it properly dismissed the petition for failure to state a claim.

            Affirmed.

 



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.