This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re Estate of Rudolph Frank Boyer.
Filed July 13, 2004
Todd County District Court
File No. P0-02-404
Kirk R. Olson, Olson Law Office, 25 Third Street South, Long Prairie, Minnesota 56347 (for respondent estate)
David W. Buchin, Buchin Law Office, 16 North Ninth Avenue, St. Cloud, Minnesota 56303 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Hudson, Presiding Judge; Klaphake, Judge; and Crippen, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying her claim for a life-estate interest in decedent’s estate and recovery of direct contributions to the development of decedent’s property. Appellant also argues that the trial court erred because decedent’s estate would be unjustly enriched if her claim is denied. Finally, appellant argues that she should recover under a quasi-contract theory because she provided many benefits to decedent and decedent accepted and retained these benefits. Because the evidence supports the trial court’s finding of fact and the findings of fact support the trial court’s conclusion of law, we affirm.
The subject property in this case is a farm that decedent, Rudolph Frank Boyer, owned in Long Prairie, Minnesota, and is adjacent to a 27.5-acre farm owned by appellant, Judith Ellis. Appellant testified that when she bought her farm, decedent discussed the possibility of renting part of appellant’s property. Decedent farmed and pastured cattle on part of appellant’s property; however, decedent never paid appellant rent for the use of her property. Appellant also began helping decedent with farm work on his property.
Appellant lived in a trailer on her property with her children until approximately 1980, when she was no longer able to continue living in the trailer because she could not have gas delivered to her property. Decedent invited appellant and her children to live with him on his property, and appellant remained on the property until decedent’s death in 2002. Appellant and decedent worked together on the farm for more than twenty years, and appellant also had outside employment for eight years. Appellant testified that her income from this employment went to decedent.
Appellant testified that she and her children lived together with decedent as a family and that she and her daughter primarily took care of the household chores such as cooking and cleaning. When asked by counsel for the estate whether she ever billed decedent for the services she performed, appellant replied, “If I was living in the house as family, why would I bill him.”
Decedent and appellant were not married at the time of his death. Appellant understood that decedent had a will that would allow her to remain on and use the property for the remainder of her life, and then it would go to decedent’s heirs. But decedent did not leave a will, any writing with directives, or any other agreement or document purporting to be a contract concerning the disposition of his estate.
Appellant filed a claim against decedent’s estate, seeking a constructive trust over the estate, a life estate in the property, and an award of certain personal property in the estate. After a trial, the trial court denied appellant’s claim. The trial court concluded that decedent financially supported appellant and her children, and in exchange, she provided her services as homemaker, companion, and farmhand. Without moving for a new trial, appellant filed this appeal.
D E C I S I O N
Absent a motion for a new trial, our scope of review is generally limited to whether the evidence supports the trial court’s findings of fact and whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law and the judgment. Erickson v. Erickson, 434 N.W.2d 284, 286 (Minn. App. 1989). Appellate courts can also address substantive legal issues presented at trial. Alpha Real Estate Co. of Rochester v. Delta Dental Plan of Minn., 664 N.W.2d 303, 308-11 (Minn. 2003).
Minn. Stat. §§ 513.075 and 513.076 (2002) “prevent an unmarried couple living together in ‘contemplation of sexual relations’ from receiving the legal rights conferred upon married couples.” In re Estate of Palmen, 588 N.W.2d 493, 496 (Minn. 1999). In Palmen, the supreme court noted,
by virtue of living together in contemplation of sexual relations, neither cohabitant obtains any ownership interest or legal right to the other individual’s property or earnings. Additionally, unlike the case with a married couple, the courts cannot conclusively presume that each cohabitant is entitled to the value of any contributions made during the course of their relationship.
Id. (footnotes omitted). In Palmen, appellant allegedly contributed money and labor to constructing a log cabin on decedent’s property and sought to recover the value of her direct contributions. Id. at 495. The supreme court held that appellant’s claim was not based on her cohabitation with decedent in contemplation of sexual relations, but rather her claim was based on her direct individual contributions to the estate. Id. at 496. The supreme court noted that appellant is only “seeking to recover the value of her direct contributions to the construction of the log cabin. She does not seek to recover the value of general contributions she made to the relationship she had with [decedent] nor does she make any claim on [decedent’s] earnings or to his property.” Id. The supreme court concluded that because appellant’s “claim seeks to recover her direct contributions to the construction of the log cabin, her claim is not based on her living together with [decedent] ‘in contemplation of sexual relations . . . out of wedlock.’” Id.
Citing Palmen, appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying her claim because the recovery of direct contributions she made to the development of decedent’s property is not barred. Appellant contends that she directly contributed to developing decedent’s property by working on the farm for more than twenty years without compensation. In addition, appellant argues that she is entitled to remain on the farm for the remainder of her life.
But Palmen is distinguishable. The claimant in Palmen provided specific accountings to calculate the individual contributions that she made to the estate. Here, appellant did not provide evidence or an accounting of specific direct contributions, and, as the trial court noted, appellant “cannot support a claim separate and apart from the general contributions made by each party in the course of living together or based solely upon the contemplation of sexual relations.”
The evidence supports the trial court’s findings of fact; therefore we conclude that appellant’s claim is based on her long-term cohabitation with the decedent, and that appellant did not provide evidence of specific uncompensated contributions as required by Palmen.
Appellant also argues that the trial court erred because decedent’s estate would be unjustly enriched if appellant were not allowed to receive a distribution from the estate. The trial court found that appellant made no showing that the estate has been unjustly enriched by any act or service performed by appellant.
A claim for unjust enrichment may be 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.” Timmer v. Gray, 395 N.W.2d 477, 478 (Minn. App. 1986).
We conclude that the trial court did not err in finding appellant made no showing that decedent’s estate would be unjustly enriched by acts performed by appellant. Appellant argues that she maintained the property, and without her efforts the estate would have no interest in the farm. The trial court rejected appellant’s testimony, noting “the property has been poorly maintained and has not been improved at all; it lacks even indoor plumbing.” The trial court further noted that “any award of a constructive trust for a life estate . . . to the [appellant] would result in the [appellant] receiving unjust enrichment at the expense of the Decedent’s estate.” This is not a situation where there has been failure of consideration, fraud, or mistake, nor is it a situation where it would be morally wrong for one party to enrich himself at the expense of another.
Accordingly, we conclude that decedent’s estate would not be unjustly enriched at appellant’s expense.
Finally, appellant argues that she should be able to recover under a quasi-contract theory because she provided many benefits to decedent, which he accepted and retained. Appellant contends that decedent appreciated the benefits because he never attempted to remove appellant from the property and he continued to have appellant provide the benefits to him throughout their relationship. The trial court noted that both parties received approximately equal benefits from their living arrangement and concluded that “there is no basis to find inequity in the result that [appellant] receives no property interest from Decedent’s estate.”
The essential elements of a quasi-contract are (1) a benefit conferred on the defendant by the plaintiff; (2) appreciation by the defendant of such benefit; and (3) acceptance and retention of such benefit under such circumstances that it would be inequitable for him to retain without paying for the value of the benefit. Acton Const. Co. v. State, 383 N.W.2d 416, 417 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. May 22, 1986) (citation omitted). The evidence shows that appellant met the first element of a quasi-contract, because decedent received numerous benefits as a result of appellant’s contributions to the household. But the second element of quasi-contract cannot be proved, because decedent cannot testify as to whether he appreciated the benefits; but the evidence suggests that decedent appreciated the benefits, because he never asked appellant to leave the property and continued to accept these benefits over their entire relationship.
Further, appellant has not met the third element of a quasi-contract. Although decedent accepted and retained these benefits, both parties benefited from their living situation, and it is not inequitable for decedent to retain the value of the benefits he received from the living situation without paying for the value of those benefits. It appears from the record that except for an eight-year interval of outside employment, appellant presented no evidence that she had any specific source of income or provided financial support to the family household. Appellant and her children appear to have relied mainly on supplemental security income, the minimal income derived from the farm, and decedent’s social security income. Thus, the trial court correctly noted that appellant received many “benefits from the Decedent as a result of Decedent’s contributions to appellant and her children,” and both parties “derived approximately equal benefits from their living arrangement.”
As the trial court aptly noted, it is unfortunate that decedent made no provisions whatsoever for appellant who made her life with him for 22 years in a familial relationship. But on this record, we are compelled to conclude that there is no inequity in the result that appellant receive no property interest in decedent’s estate.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.