This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).







In re:  The Estate of

Irel K. Dahlman


Filed April 25, 2006

Reversed; motion to strike granted and

motion to supplement denied

Hudson, Judge


Washington County District Court

File No. P8-04-3107


Dale G. Swanson, 407 West Broadway Avenue, Forest Lake, Minnesota 55025 (for appellant Carol J. Dahlman)


Laura A. Hage, Hage Law Office, 1539 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota 55105 (for respondents Daniel J. Dahlman, Kathleen K. Torgerud, Robert W. Dahlman, and Shandra Duval)


            Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge; Klaphake, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


In this probate dispute, appellant-personal representative (PR) argues that the district court (a) improperly allowed certain claims against decedent’s estate based in part on the district court’s misreading of the decedent’s dissolution judgment; (b) misapplied the doctrine of collateral estoppel to preclude the PR from arguing that the provision in decedent’s dissolution judgment requiring decedent to maintain certain life insurance was security for decedent’s child-support obligation and expired when his children reached majority; and (c) abused its discretion by awarding bad-faith attorney fees against the PR for initially denying the claims against decedent’s estate made by respondents, his children, for the life-insurance proceeds.  Because the district court misapplied the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and because decedent’s obligation under the dissolution judgment to maintain life insurance for his children unambiguously ended when decedent’s obligation to pay child support ended, we reverse.  Accordingly, we also reverse the district court’s award of bad-faith attorney fees against the PR.



The 1974 stipulated judgment dissolving the marriage of decedent Irel K. Dahlman and Jeanne Dahlman included a provision that decedent’s then-existing life-insurance policies be kept in force and that his four minor children be named as beneficiaries.  The relevant judgment provisions state:

            9. That [Jeanne Dahlman] is awarded judgment and [decedent] ordered to pay as and for support of the minor children of the parties the sum of [$110 per child per month].  Said support payments per child shall continue until said child attains the age of eighteen (18) years, is married, emancipated, self-supporting, in the armed forces of the United States or deceased, whichever of that may occur first, and on the happening of such event all further liability for the support of said child by [decedent] shall terminate.


            10. That as and for additional support, [Jeanne Dahlman] is awarded judgment and [decedent] is ordered to keep in full force and effect for the benefit of the minor children of the parties the hospitalization and major medical coverages presently in effect or in lieu thereof coverages provided by a different policy or policies, which coverages shall be not less in benefit than those presently provided.  The [decedent] shall at all times keep [Jeanne Dahlman] informed of the company name, address and policy number of the policy or policies in effect.


            11. That as and for additional support, [decedent] is ordered to continue to keep in full force and effect the life insurance policies presently existing on his own life, with the children of the parties named as the beneficiaries thereto.


            When the dissolution judgment was entered, decedent’s life-insurance policies had a total value of about $35,500.  In 1979, after decedent remarried and two of the children had reached the age of majority, Jeanne Dahlman moved to increase decedent’s support obligation.  In a cross-motion, decedent moved to “clarify or modify” paragraph 11 of the judgment so that his life-insurance obligation was limited to his children’s minority.  In May 1980, the district court increased decedent’s support obligation but denied his motion regarding the insurance provision.  The 1980 order was not appealed by decedent.

On December 16, 2003, decedent died, naming his wife as personal representative (PR) and sole beneficiary of his estate.  Several months after his death, respondents—decedent’s four children, all of whom are now adults—discovered that decedent had not maintained the life-insurance policies or had not kept them as beneficiaries, or both.  In July 2004, respondents each served claims on decedent’s estate to recover a quarter of the value of the insurance policies ($8,875 each).  The PR disallowed the claims.  Respondents then jointly petitioned the district court for, among other things, allowance of their disallowed claims.  The PR opposed the motion, arguing that decedent’s insurance obligation expired when his children reached majority.  In an April 13, 2005 order, the district court, based on the 1980 support order, ruled that the PR was collaterally estopped from arguing that decedent’s insurance obligation expired when the children reached majority.  The district court then allowed respondents’ claims in the amount of $35,000, awarded respondents bad-faith attorney fees for the PR’s initial denial of respondents’ claims, and ordered formal supervised administration of the estate.  The PR appeals.




            The PR argues that the district court should not have collaterally estopped her, based on the 1980 support ruling, from arguing that decedent’s insurance obligation expired when his children reached majority.

            Collateral estoppel is employed to prevent parties from relitigating issues decided in a prior action.  Nw. Nat’l Life Ins. Co. v. County of Hennepin, 572 N.W.2d 51, 53 (Minn. 1997).  Whether collateral estoppel is available in a particular case is a mixed question of law and fact subject to de novo review.  Falgren v. State, Bd. of Teaching, 545 N.W.2d 901, 905 (Minn. 1996).  The availability of collateral estoppel requires, among other things, that the issue to be precluded from consideration in the current proceeding is “identical” with an issue decided in the prior proceeding.  Id.  The party invoking collateral estoppel has the burden of proof.  Virsen v. Rosso, Beutel, Johnson, Rosso & Ebersold, 356 N.W.2d 333, 337 (Minn. App. 1984).  Here, because respondents have not shown that the issue decided in the 1980 support order is identical with the one the PR seeks to raise in this probate proceeding, collateral estoppel is not available.

In the 1979–1980 support proceeding, decedent moved to “clarify or modify” paragraph 11 of the dissolution judgment, arguing that his life-insurance obligation was “intended to secure [Jeanne Dahlman] and the children . . . during minority from the risk of [decedent’s] demise, and not to provide the children . . . with a property distribution after reaching majority in the event of [decedent’s] death.”  In that proceeding, the district court found that decedent had “agreed to continue life insurance policies in existence as of that time naming said minor children as beneficiaries,” but the district court did not state how long decedent agreed to continue the policies.  Nor did the district court state whether continuing the policies was to secure decedent’s support obligation, was a property award to the children,[1] or was for some other purpose.  Similarly, while another provision of the support order states that “[decedent’s] motion for an order modifying the requirements relative to requiring the parties’ children as beneficiaries under life insurance policies is denied,”[2] that provision did not explain why the motion was denied.  Nor did the support order otherwise explain the rationale for denying decedent’s motion.  On this record, several possible reasons, including that the children were supposed to be permanently selected as the policy beneficiaries, exist for the denial of decedent’s motion in the support proceeding.[3]

            In the current proceeding, the PR argues that the insurance requirement of paragraph 11 was security for decedent’s child-support payments and this cannot bind decedent after the children reached majority.  Based primarily on the relief decedent sought in the support proceeding, respondents argue that the issue in this probate proceeding is identical with the one that was decided in the support order.  The lack of specificity in the support ruling allows, but does not require, the inference that the issue decided in the support order is identical with the issue the PR seeks to argue in this probate proceeding.  But a mere possibility that an issue raised in the current proceeding is identical with an issue decided in the prior proceeding is not a sufficient basis to invoke collateral estoppel.  See Parker v. MVBA Harvestore Sys., 491 N.W.2d 904, 906 (Minn. App. 1992) (holding that collateral estoppel was inapplicable when the prior ruling “might have been decided on one or more of several grounds and it does not explicitly state which one(s) it relied on”).  Thus, respondents have not satisfied the identical-issue requirement for showing that collateral estoppel is available, and the district court should not have invoked that doctrine.



The PR argues that the district court misread paragraph 11 of the judgment because it unambiguously secured decedent’s child-support obligation and expired when decedent’s children reached majority.  We agree. 

Whether a dissolution judgment is ambiguous is a legal question.  Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986).  If a judgment is ambiguous, a district court may construe or clarify it, and the meaning given the ambiguous provision is a question of fact reviewed for clear error.  Stieler v. Stieler, 244 Minn. 312, 319, 70 N.W.2d 127, 131 (1955) (construction); Landwehr v. Landwehr, 380 N.W.2d 136, 139–40 (Minn. App. 1985) (clear error).  Absent ambiguity, however, it is not proper for a court to interpret a stipulated judgment.  Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562–63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977).  A judgment provision is unambiguous if its meaning can be ascertained “without any guide other than knowledge of the facts on which the language depends for meaning.”  Erickson v. Erickson, 449 N.W.2d 173, 178 (Minn. 1989).  When evaluating the meaning of a provision in a dissolution judgment, the provision must be viewed in the context of surrounding provisions.  See Brugger v. Brugger, 303 Minn. 488, 491, 229 N.W.2d 131, 134 (1975) (noting that a court must balance equities in light of facts existing at time of decree and account for other portions of the judgment).

Here, paragraph 9 addresses decedent’s obligation for “support of the minor children,” specifying the requirements for decedent’s support payments.  Paragraphs 10 and 11, regarding health and life insurance, directly follow the primary support obligation recited in paragraph 9, and, consistent with the then-existing statutory requirement that “[e]very award of alimony or support money in a judgment of dissolution shall clearly designate whether the same is alimony or support money[,]” the obligations in paragraphs 10 and 11 are explicitly designated as “additional support.”  Minn. Stat. § 518.55 (1974).  Moreover, in 1974, “support money” was defined as an award “for the care, support and education of any child of the marriage,” and “child” was defined as “an individual under 18 years of age.”  Minn. Stat. § 518.54, subds. 4, 2 (1974) (respectively).  Thus, because the insurance obligation was explicitly designated as “support,” and because “support” was for persons less than age 18, continuing decedent’s obligation beyond the children’s majority would be improper.  Therefore, the district court’s determination in the probate proceeding that paragraph 11 was not a form of child support is reversed.[4]



            The PR argues that the district court abused its discretion by awarding bad-faith attorney fees against the PR for previously denying respondents’ claims against the estate.  Respondents argue that the PR waived this issue by failing to raise it in district court.  See Thiele v. Stich, 425 N.W.2d 580, 582 (Minn. 1988) (stating that a reviewing court generally must only consider issues presented to and decided by the district court).  The appellate courts’ aversion to addressing issues not raised in district court “is not . . . an ironclad rule”; under appropriate circumstances, appellate courts can take action “as the interest of justice may require.”  Putz v. Putz, 645 N.W.2d 343, 350 (Minn. 2002) (quotations omitted); see also Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 103.04 (addressing the scope of appellate review).  Here, the merits of the PR’s attorney-fees claim were briefed by respondents, and, given our decision regarding the meaning of decedent’s life-insurance obligation, the resolution of the attorney-fees question is academic.  Therefore, we will address the attorney-fees question: Because decedent’s insurance obligation expired when his children reached majority, the PR cannot have denied respondents’ claims in bad faith.  Therefore, we reverse the award of bad-faith attorney fees to respondents.


            Respondents move to strike portions of the PR’s brief and appendix, because they include documents outside the record on appeal, and references to those documents.  The PR moves to supplement the record with these items in the interest of justice.  Because the documents in question were not part of the district court record, they are not properly before this court.  See Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 110.01 (defining the record on appeal).  We grant respondents’ motion to strike the documents in question, as well as the references to those documents in the PR’s brief.  We deny the PR’s motion to supplement the record.

Reversed; motion to strike granted and motion to supplement denied.

[1] Generally, in dissolutions, the district court cannot award property to the parties’ children.  See Melamed v. Melamed, 286 N.W.2d 716, 718 (Minn. 1979).  Decedent’s dissolution, however, involved a stipulated judgment.  And parties can stipulate to something a court cannot order.  In re Labelle’s Trust, 302 Minn. 98, 115–16, 223 N.W.2d 400, 410 (1974).

[2] To the extent the support order deemed decedent’s motion to be one to “modif[y]” paragraph 11 under Minn. Stat. § 518.64 (1978), that order assumed paragraph 11 to be part of the child-support award, meaning that paragraph 11 would have become ineffective when there were no children for child-support purposes.

[3] There are other possible reasons for denying decedent’s motion to “modify” paragraph 11.  While paragraph 11 was part of the support obligation, decedent did not satisfy the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2 (1978), for modifying a support obligation.  Also, the district court could have believed that Jeanne Dahlman continued to need the insurance to secure the increased support that the order awarded for decedent’s two remaining minor children.  Further, the district court could have denied decedent’s motion to “clarify” paragraph 11 of the judgment because the district court deemed that paragraph clear and unambiguous, meaning that there was nothing to clarify.

[4] If the 1980 support decision denying decedent’s motion was based on a determination that paragraph 11 created a permanent obligation for decedent to name the children as beneficiaries of his life insurance, the 1980 decision misconstrued the insurance requirement, raising a significant possibility that invoking collateral estoppel in this probate proceeding would work such an injustice against decedent’s estate or be so contrary to the weighty public policy of correctly implementing the terms of dissolution judgments that doing so could support not applying collateral estoppel, even if it were available.  See AFSCME Council 96 v. Arrowhead Reg’l Corr. Bd., 356 N.W.2d 295, 299 (Minn. 1984) (stating that collateral estoppel is not rigidly applied and “is qualified or rejected when [its] application would contravene an overriding public policy”).