This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

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

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A05-971

 

In re the Estate of: John Alfred Meiners, Decedent.

 

Filed May 23, 2006

Affirmed

Stoneburner, Judge

 

Crow Wing County District Court

File No. P4032630

 

Patrick J. Wustner, 300 Degree of Honor Building, 325 Cedar Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for appellant)

 

James L. Berg, 1059 Stoughton Avenue, Box 85, Chaska, MN 55318 (for respondent)

 

            Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Stoneburner, Judge; and Collins, Judge.*

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N

 

STONEBURNER, Judge

 

            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.

FACTS

 

            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 capacity.

D 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 omitted). 

            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 testamentary capacity. 

[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.

            Arnold 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 difficulties. 

            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.

            Affirmed.



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