This opinion will be unpublished and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
Ramsey County District Court
File No. 62-P2-03-005831
Paul W. Chamberlain, Chamberlain Law Firm, 1907 Wayzata Boulevard, Suite 130, Wayzata, MN 55391 (for appellants Camilla Peterson Devries and Rick Devries);
Nicholas B. Schutz and Thomas F.
Thomas R. O’Connell, Collins, Buckley, Sauntry & Haugh, P.L.L.P., W-1100 First National Bank Building, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for personal representative US Bank).
Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Klaphake, Judge; and Ross, Judge.
Appellants argue that the district court erred by denying their claim against decedent’s estate for unjust enrichment. Because we conclude that appellants did not establish the elements of their claim, we affirm.
Appellants Camilla Peterson-Devries and Rick Devries provided decedent Geraldine Moeller with assistance and companionship for 13 years before Moeller died in 2003. In 1990, Camilla Peterson-Devries was a nursing student working as an in-home nursing aid to Moeller’s husband. Camilla continued to provide care to Moeller’s husband as a favor to Moeller twice weekly after graduating from nursing school. When Moeller’s husband moved into a nursing home, Camilla frequently took Moeller to visit him.
After Moeller’s husband died, the Devrieses invited Moeller to dinner every Sunday and helped Moeller with her weekly household chores and shopping. Camilla gave Moeller additional assistance when Moeller broke her foot. The Devrieses also provided handyman services and hired a cleaning service for Moeller. Camilla testified that if Moeller had run out of money, they would have taken care of her. More than once Moeller offered to pay the Devrieses for their services to her, but they declined payment.
Moeller told a friend that Camilla was like the daughter she never had. She commented to the Devrieses that “everything belongs to [them],” and on multiple occasions told her close friends that she intended to bequeath the Devrieses all that she owned. At Moeller’s instruction, in late 2000 her attorney drafted a will naming the Devrieses as the primary beneficiaries of her estate. But for reasons not ascertainable from the record, Moeller never executed that will. Moeller did purchase two certificates of deposit totaling $14,000 to be paid to Camilla Devries upon Moeller’s death. But when Moeller died in 2003, her outdated 1993 will was still in effect. Moeller’s 1993 will contained only lapsed devises, leading the district court to order that Moeller’s estate pass intestate to her nieces and nephews. According to the Devrieses and undisputed by any party in this appeal, these intestate heirs had no known contact with Moeller and were unknown even to Moeller’s closest friends. The Devrieses emphasize that the heirs had not visited Moeller, did not render Moeller any care, and did not attend Moeller’s funeral.
The Devrieses filed a petition claiming that they were entitled to Moeller’s estate on the theories of contract to make a will and unjust enrichment. The district court denied their claims, and they moved for amended findings or, in the alternative, a new trial. The district court denied their motion. This appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
and Rick Devries argue that the probate court abused its discretion by denying
their claim of unjust enrichment against Moeller’s estate. They challenge the district court’s
conclusion that they provided Moeller with assistance gratuitously and argue
that the district court erred by requiring that the Devrieses show that Moeller
acted illegally. We review the denial of
the Devrieses’ unjust-enrichment claim for an abuse of discretion. See City of
An action for unjust enrichment is based on a quasi-contractual
agreement. Hollywood Dairy, Inc. v.
Timmer, 411 N.W.2d 258, 260
The district court found that the Devrieses provided Moeller with assistance gratuitously, precluding their claim of unjust enrichment. We believe this finding has ample support. The record shows that Camilla began providing Moeller and her husband with care when she worked as an in-home nursing aid. Only after Camilla graduated from nursing school did her assistance become non-compensatory. At different times the Devrieses turned down Moeller’s offers of payment for their services. At some point not clear in the record, Moeller first announced that she intended to devise her entire estate to the Devrieses. But the record shows that they were willing to assist her without remuneration. Although the Devrieses were under the reasonable impression that they would be the primary beneficiaries of Moeller’s estate, the record supports the district court’s determination that their caregiving was not motivated by Moeller’s intentions to devise her estate to them. The court did not abuse its discretion by concluding that the gratuitous nature of the assistance and companionship precluded the Devrieses’ claim for unjust enrichment.
The Devrieses argue that in light of Moeller’s intent to name them as the primary beneficiaries of her estate, it would be unjust to deny them relief. They highlight the stark comparison between the compassion and care they provided Moeller and the lack of any apparent similar care offered by Moeller’s distant heirs. But precedent is clear that the type of circumstance that warrants unjust-enrichment relief requires illegal, morally culpable, or unconscionable conduct on the part of the party that received the benefit. Schumacher, 627 N.W.2d at 729; Custom Design Studio, 584 N.W.2d at 433; Park-Lake Car Wash, 394 N.W.2d at 514. The Devrieses point us to nothing in the record that indicates that Moeller—who benefited from the Devrieses many acts of kindness—acted illegally, immorally, or unconscionably, and we see no evidence of bad motive. Moeller’s unachieved aspiration to leave the Devrieses her estate is not the type of unjust circumstance contemplated by cases applying the doctrine of unjust enrichment. Our personal notions of appreciation for the kindness the Devrieses demonstrated here cannot drive us to apply the equitable unjust-enrichment doctrine to require Moeller’s estate essentially to pay the Devrieses for care they rendered out of benevolence rather than out of an expectation of remuneration. It is simply not unjust to be enriched by a gratuity.
We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the Devrieses’ claim of unjust enrichment.