This opinion will
be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the Estate of:
John Alfred Meiners, Decedent.
May 23, 2006
Crow Wing County
File No. P4032630
Patrick J. Wustner,
300 Degree of Honor Building, 325 Cedar Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for
James L. Berg, 1059 Stoughton Avenue, Box 85, Chaska, MN 55318 (for respondent)
and decided by Lansing,
Presiding Judge; Stoneburner,
Judge; and Collins,
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In this will contest, appellant, the
sister of decedent John Alfred Meiners, challenges summary judgment in favor of
respondent, decedent’s ex-wife, arguing that the district court erred in
concluding that appellant failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact to
support her claim that decedent lacked testamentary capacity at the time he
executed a 1997 will. We affirm.
At all relevant times, decedent John
Alfred Meiners was a licensed, practicing Minnesota attorney. He was married to respondent Lisa Tyson for
five years. The relationship was
acrimonious, and the marriage was dissolved by a judgment entered on August 5,
1996. During his lifetime, decedent
suffered from and was treated for depression.
Decedent executed a will on December
29, 1997, naming his friend, attorney John G. Berg, as personal representative and
leaving everything, including his homestead, which had been in the Meiners
family for approximately 80 years, to Tyson.
The will was witnessed by Kathy A. Barton, f/k/a Kathy A. Bunce, who worked
with decedent in 1996 and 1997, and Frances R. Silverman. Decedent delivered the will to Berg for
safekeeping. In September 2000, decedent
orally renounced the will to Berg and instructed Berg to put the will in his
closed files for eventual destruction.
There is evidence that decedent was drafting a new will at
some time after he made the 1997 will, but there is no evidence that such a
will was ever completed or executed, and the 1997 will was never destroyed. Decedent died on January 26, 2003, after
which Tyson first learned that she was the beneficiary of decedent’s 1997
will. Tyson admits that she did not
expect to receive any property from decedent.
At the time of his death, decedent
was survived by his father, the Reverend Gerhard Meiners (now deceased), and
his sister, appellant Annmarie Arnold.
Decedent was very fond of appellant’s daughter, his niece, and often
spoke about both his sister and his niece to Barton. When Barton witnessed decedent’s will in
1997, she assumed that decedent had made his sister and/or niece beneficiaries
and was surprised to learn that decedent had left everything to Tyson, about
whom he never spoke to Barton.
Tyson offered the will for probate,
and decedent’s father, Reverend Meiners, objected. Arnold
was substituted as the objector after Reverend Meiners died. The objection claimed that Tyson exerted
undue influence over decedent, decedent lacked testamentary capacity when he
executed the 1997 will, and decedent revoked the 1997 will. Tyson moved for summary judgment, and the
district court granted her motion. This
appeal followed, challenging only the district court’s holding that Arnold failed to raise a
genuine issue of material fact on the issue of decedent’s testamentary
E C I S I O N
On appeal from a grant of summary
judgment, this court determines whether there are any genuine issues of
material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the
law. State by Cooper v. French,
460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn.
1990). This court views the evidence in
the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was
granted. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504
N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn.
1993). Summary judgment is warranted
when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on
file, and affidavits, if any, “show that there is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and that either party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of
law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. Summary judgment is “inappropriate when
reasonable persons might draw different conclusions from the evidence
presented.” DLH, Inc. v. Russ,566 N.W.2d 60, 69 (Minn. 1997). A court determining a summary-judgment motion
may not determine issues of credibility or weigh the evidence. See
id. at 70 (regarding weighing
evidence); Forsblad v. Jepson, 292 Minn. 458, 459-60, 195 N.W.2d 429, 430
(1972) (regarding credibility).
A party resisting summary
judgment must show by “substantial” evidence that there is a genuine issue of
material fact, may not rest on “mere averments,” and must present more than
“evidence which merely creates a metaphysical doubt as to a factual issue and
which is . . . sufficiently probative with respect to an essential element of
the nonmoving party’s case to permit reasonable persons to draw different
conclusions.” DHL, Inc., 566 N.W.2dat 70-71.
For a will to be valid, the
testator must have had testamentary capacity at the time the will was
executed. In re Estate of Anderson, 384 N.W.2d 518, 520 (Minn. App. 1986). Whether a decedent possessed testamentary
capacity is generally a question of fact to be decided by the fact-finder. See In re Estate of Lange, 398 N.W.2d
569, 572 (Minn. App. 1986) (reviewing issue of testamentary capacity under
clearly erroneous standard for findings of fact). The burden of establishing lack of
testamentary capacity is on the will contestant. Minn.
Stat. § 524.3-407 (2004).
A testator has testamentary
capacity if the testator “understands the nature, situation, and extent of his
property and the claims of others on his bounty or his remembrance, and he [is]
able to hold these things in his mind long enough to form a rational judgment
concerning them.” In re Estate of
Congdon, 309 N.W.2d 261, 266 (Minn.
1981) (alteration in original) (quotation omitted). “[I]t is the generally recognized rule that
testamentary capacity requires only that the testator have capacity to know and
understand the nature and extent of his bounty, as distinguished from the requirement
that he have actual knowledge thereof.” Id. (quotation
Relevant factors considered in determining testamentary
capacity include: (1) the reasonableness of the property disposition; (2) the
testator’s behavior within a reasonable time before and after the will was
executed; (3) a prior adjudication regarding the testator’s capacity; and (4)
expert testimony about the testator’s mental and physical condition. Anderson,
384 N.W.2d at 520.
Expert-opinion testimony on whether the decedent had
testamentary capacity is “valuable,” although not conclusive. Lange, 398 N.W.2d at 572. “[I]n a will contest the opinion of a
witness, lay or scientific, should not be asked as to the testator’s capacity
to make a valid will, [but] there is certainly no objection to questions
concerning his ability to comprehend his property and dispose of it
understandingly.” In re Estate of Jenks, 291 Minn.
138, 144-145, 189 N.W.2d 695, 698-99 (1971) (quotation omitted).
In this case, Arnold
presented two affidavits from Dallas D. Erdmann, M.D., a board-certified
forensic psychiatrist. Dr. Erdman
reviewed medical reports from two of decedent’s treating psychiatrists, an
MMPI-II interpretation, affidavits from people who knew decedent, affidavits that
decedent submitted in his dissolution action, Tyson’s answers to admission
requests, and decedent’s will. He also
spoke with attorney John Berg, a close friend of decedent and the
court-appointed administrator of decedent’s estate. Dr. Erdmann opined that decedent did not make
a rational, natural disposition of his property in the 1997 will and, in view
of this and decedent’s depressed state of mind, that decedent’s ability to
comprehend the nature and extent of his bounty as well as the natural
disposition of his bounty was seriously impaired.
The district court held that the affidavits were not
sufficient to preclude summary judgment because they “fail to explain how being
depressed and making a seemingly illogical will reasonably lead to the
conclusion that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity.” The district court noted that affidavits that
lack a factual basis and are conclusory in nature will not defeat a motion for
summary judgment, citing Conlin v. City
of St. Paul, 605 N.W.2d 396, 402-03 (Minn. 2000). Arnold
asserts that the district court erred in its rejection of her expert’s
affidavits to defeat summary judgment, arguing that Dr. Erdmann’s opinions were
based on his credentials and his examination of records typically relied on by
experts in rendering such opinions. Arnold characterizes the
district court’s holding as having rejected the affidavits for lack of
foundation. We conclude, however, that
the district court’s ruling was not based on lack of foundation but on Dr.
Erdmann’s failure to provide any causal link between relator’s depression and
disposition of his assets, and the asserted lack of testamentary capacity. As was the case in Conlin, Dr. Erdmann’s affidavits are conclusory and “merely
identify generalized concerns and seemingly parrot back language from our case
law” without explaining the causal connection.
See id. Although Dr. Erdmann stated that depression
can affect “judgment,” an exercise of bad judgment is not probative of
[T]he testator may make an unjust,
unreasonable, and unfair will if he chooses.
He may dispose of his property as freely by will as he may give it in
his lifetime. Nor does the fairness and
reasonableness of the disposition prove competency or the opposite. Only when there is evidence upon the issue
[of competency] may such facts [as to the reasonableness of the disposition] be
used for the light they give.
In re Estate of Forsythe, 221 Minn.
303, 314, 22 N.W.2d 19, 26 (1946) (quotation omitted).
Although a district court may not weigh the evidence on
summary judgment, the district court “is not required to ignore its conclusion
that a particular piece of evidence may have no probative value, such that
reasonable persons could not draw different conclusions from the evidence presented.” DLH,
Inc.,566 N.W.2d at 70. We conclude that the district court properly
determined that Dr. Erdmann’s affidavits lack sufficient probative value to
raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding decedent’s testamentary capacity.
argues that affidavits other than those of Dr. Erdmann and documents submitted
create a genuine question of fact about decedent’s testamentary capacity. The district court did not specifically
address this evidence, but clearly concluded that it was insufficient to
preclude summary judgment.
None of the medical evidence submitted by Arnold contained
information that would put in question decedent’s testamentary capacity. To the contrary, although the medical reports
confirm decedent’s struggle with depression, they also document the fact that
he was doing well on medication, enjoyed his profession, had outside interests
and friends, considered himself happy, and showed no evidence of cognitive
Likewise, the lay-witness affidavits
submitted by Arnold
do not raise a genuine issue of material fact.
Barton, who attested to decedent’s competency when she witnessed the
will, states in her affidavit that she and decedent were “working partners” in
1996 and 1997. She states that decedent
talked with her about his family, especially his niece, of whom he was very
fond. If anything, this affidavit is
evidence of decedent’s capacity to identify the natural objects of his bounty. Paul Brown, a lifelong friend of decedent,
opines in his affidavit that decedent was depressed and despondent in late
December 1997 based on his observations that decedent slept all day; would not
go ice fishing, which he normally loved to do; and “was not himself.” Arnold’s
affidavit documents a conversation she had with decedent in 1995 in which he said
that Tyson had stabbed him with a screwdriver and had become angry when
decedent brought home a hunting dog.
None of these affidavits contains facts that would permit reasonable
persons to conclude that decedent lacked testamentary capacity.
Evidence that Tyson did not have an
expectation of receiving decedent’s bounty, evidence of the acrimony between
decedent and Tyson in the marriage and during the dissolution, and evidence
that decedent lived in a “garbage house” at the time his home was appraised in
August 1997 likewise do not implicate decedent’s testamentary capacity. See Schleiderer
v. Gergen, 129 Minn.
248, 250, 152 N.W. 541, 542 (1915) (“The fact that the testator is eccentric,
or erratic,” or unreasonable, does not incapacitate him from making a
will. Not every mental disorder
disqualifies him. The test is whether
the will is affected by the disorder.”).
Arnold’s reliance on In re Estate of Anderson, 384 N.W.2d 518 (Minn.
App. 1986), is also misplaced. Anderson’s treating physician testified that he had
diagnosed Anderson with senile dementia and
explained how that condition impaired Anderson’s
capacity to understand and appreciate the consequences of her actions. Id. at 521. The record in that case also included
testimony of lay witnesses, including Anderson’s
relatives and caregivers, providing specific evidence of Anderson’s diminished mental capacity. Id. Arnold’s
submissions, by contrast, do not raise a genuine issue of material fact
concerning decedent’s testamentary capacity.