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08/07/81 MATTER ELISABETH M. CONGDON v. 51721

August 7, 1981

IN THE MATTER OF: ELISABETH M. CONGDON, A.K.A. ELIZABETH MANNERING CONGDON, DECEASED, NO. 51335 AND MARJORIE CALDWELL, APPELLANT,
v.
51721 SUANNE LEROY, HEATHER LEROY, REBECCA LEROY WILLIAMS, CHILDREN OF MARJORIE CALDWEL RESPONDENTS, AND IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF: ELISABETH M. CONGDON, A.K.A. ELISABETH MANNERING CONGDON, DECEDENT, IN THE MATTER OF THE LIVING TRUST OF ELISABETH M. CONGDON CREATED BY AGREEMENT OF SEPTEMBER 18, 1974, AS AMENDED BY AGREEMENTS DATED JULY 11, 1975 AND DECEMBER 29, 1976, IN THE MATTER OF THE TRUST CREATED UNDER THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF CHESTER ADGATE CONGDON, A.K.A. CHESTER A. CONGDON, DECEDENT, IN THE MATTER OF THE TRUST CREATED BY INDENTURE OF AUGUST 3, 1916, BETWEEN CHESTER A. CONGDON, AND OTHERS, KNOWN AS THE CONGDON TRUST. NO. 51883



Appeal from District Court, St. Louis County; Hon. Donald C. Odden, Duluth 55802 Hon N. S. Chanak, Hibbing 55748 Hon Charles T. Barnes, Duluth 55802 51335 Hon Danold Leslie, Mpls, 55487 -- (51721) Hon. N. S. Chanak Hon. Charles T. Barues Hon. C. L. Echsuran 51883, Judge. Affirmed.

Considered and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scott

1. As a general rule, a probate court has jurisdiction to exercise all incidental powers necessary for the effective adjudication of those matters within its exclusive original jurisdiction.

2. Upon review of the entire record, evidence regarding the validity of the will was properly admitted and was sufficient to support the judicial officer's decision to admit the will to probate.

3. Under the circumstances of this case, a civil proceeding pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980) is proper to determine appellant's entitlement to receive from the various trusts and to inherit from the estate of her mother.

4. In light of the procedural history, there is no merit to the contention that the statute of limitations prevents respondents from proceeding pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980).

SCOTT, Justice.

This is a consolidated appeal of three causes of action arising from the death of Elizabeth M. Congdon (Ms. Congdon), who was murdered on June 27, 1977. Jennifer Johnson, one of Ms. Congdon's two daughters, filed a petition with the St. Louis County Court, Probate Division, seeking to admit to probate Ms. Congdon's last will and testament dated December 29, 1976, and a two-page document disposing of specific items of personal property. *fn1 Marjorie Congdon LeRoy Caldwell, Ms. Congdon's other daughter, objected to the petition for probate. She alleged that Ms. Congdon lacked testamentary capacity, that the will was procured by undue influence, and that the will had not been properly executed.

After a trial before the St. Louis County Court, Probate Division, the will and accompanying memorandum were admitted to probate.

On April 14, 1980, the St. Louis County District Court, Appellate Division, affirmed the probate court's order. Mrs. Caldwell appeals that decision to this court. *fn2

On July 7, 1977, Roger Caldwell, appellant's husband, was arrested and charged with Ms. Congdon's murder. Approximately two months later four of Mrs. Caldwell's seven children *fn3 filed a petition in the St. Louis County Probate Court objecting to the distribution of funds to Mrs. Caldwell. The petition alleged a continuing murder investigation into the possible involvement of appellant and sought to prevent her from receiving distributions from the following sources:

1. The estate of Ms. Congdon (estate).

2. The living trust of Ms. Congdon created by agreement of September 18, 1974, and amended on July 11, 1975, and December 29, 1976 (the "living trust").

3. The trust created under the last will and testament of Chester A. Congdon (the "testamentary trust").

4. The trust created by indenture of August 3, 1916, by Chester A. Congdon (the "Congdon trust").

Appellant petitioned for distribution of her share of the trust funds on September 5, 1977. In response to that petition the trustees of the various trusts petitioned for an order restraining distribution to appellant pending a determination of her involvement in the murder. After a brief hearing, the judicial officer took the petitions under advisement.

Roger Caldwell was convicted of murdering Ms. Congdon on July 8, 1978. Three days later appellant was charged with conspiracy and murder, and was later indicted on those charges. On July 27, 1978, the judicial officer restrained distributions to appellant for up to one year pending a determination of her involvement in Ms. Congdon's death. *fn4

Appellant was found not guilty in the murder of Ms. Congdon on July 20, 1979. Three days later, the St. Louis County Probate Court terminated the prohibition against distributions to appellant by its order dated July 23, 1979. However, the order provided that a restraining order could be reapplied for if a proceeding were commenced pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 524-2.803 (1980). *fn5 On July 25, 1979, the trustees petitioned for such a restraining order, which was granted on July 26, 1979. In response, appellant filed a motion to require the trustees to immediately distribute to her all moneys to which she was entitled, and demanded a change of venue in the event of a Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980) action. An objection to her motion was filed on August 22, 1979, by three of appellant's children. At that time the children also requested a trial to determine appellant's entitlement to distributions. The St. Louis County Probate Court denied the demand for change of venue on October 16, 1979. Mrs. Caldwell appealed that order to the St. Louis County District Court, Appellate Division.

On December 4, 1979, the county probate court denied appellant's motion for an immediate distribution and once again denied the change of venue. The court concluded that:

A finding in a criminal proceeding that a person is not guilty of participating in the felonious and intentional killing of another does not prohibit a civil proceeding in this court to determine by a preponderance of the evidence whether the killing was felonious and intentional so as to prevent the person from receiving benefits by reason of the death.

Mrs. Caldwell appealed this order to the St. Louis County District Court, Appellate Division.

On October 10, 1980, the Appellate Division of the St. Louis County District Court issued separate orders affirming the October 16, 1979, and the December 4, 1979, orders. We granted appellant's petition for permission to appeal the October 10, 1980, decisions.

On August 9, 1979, appellant initiated a declaratory judgment action in Hennepin County District Court. She sought a declaration that Colorado law was determinative of her status as a beneficiary or, in the alternative, that Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980) was unconstitutional. The parties made cross-motions for summary judgment, and respondents moved to dismiss the action. The motion to dismiss was granted pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 555.06 (1980). *fn6 On August 15, 1980, Mrs. Caldwell appealed the Hennepin County District Court's dismissal of the declaratory judgment action to this court.

There are four basic issues in this appeal:

First, whether the St. Louis County Court, Probate Division, had proper venue and jurisdiction. Second, whether the St. Louis County Probate Division erred by admitting into probate Ms. Congdon's December 29, 1976, will. Third, whether, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980), there should be a civil proceeding to determine appellant's right to receive from Ms. Congdon's will and various trusts. Finally, whether the statute of limitations prevents respondents from proceeding pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980).

1. In resolving these issues, we must first determine venue and jurisdiction. Minn. Stat. § 542.01 (1980) provides the general rule as to venue:

Except as provided in section 542.02, every civil action shall be tried in the county in which it was begun, unless the place of trial be changed as hereinafter prescribed; and when so changed all subsequent papers in the action shall be entitled and filed in the county to which such transfer has been made.

Minn. Stat. § 524.3-201 (1980) provides the general rule for the venue of probate estate proceedings:

(a) Venue for the first informal or formal testacy or appointment proceedings after a decedent's death is:

(1) in the county where the decedent had his domicile at the time of his death * * *.

(b) Venue for all subsequent proceedings within the exclusive jurisdiction of the court is in the place where the initial proceeding occurred, unless the initial proceeding has been transferred as provided in section 524.1-303 or (c) of this section.

Ms. Congdon was domiciled in St. Louis County. Venue for the estate proceeding was properly in that county.

Minn. Stat. § 524.1-303 (1980) provides the place of venue for other than estate proceedings, as follows:

(a) Where a proceeding under this chapter could be maintained in more than one place in this state, the court in which the proceeding is first commenced has the exclusive right to proceed.

(b) If proceedings concerning the same estate, protected person, conservatee, or ward are commenced in more than one court of this state, the court in which the proceeding was first commenced shall continue to hear the matter, and the other courts shall hold the matter in abeyance until the question of venue is decided, and if the ruling court determines that venue is properly in another court, it shall transfer the proceeding to the other court.

Appellant asserts that because a Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980) action was first commenced in the Hennepin County District Court declaratory judgment action, that court should continue to hear the matter. Respondents disagree. They contend that the St. Louis County Probate Court has jurisdiction to resolve the Minn. Stat. § 524.2-803 (1980) issue.

In Leslie v. Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, 259 N.W.2d 898 (Minn. 1977), we considered a jurisdictional conflict between a district court (in a declaratory judgment action) and a county probate court regarding the distribution of trust proceeds. This court stated:

As a general rule, a probate court also has jurisdiction to exercise all incidental powers which are necessary for an effective exercise of those powers committed exclusively to its jurisdiction. * * * Perhaps the most interesting example of an incidental power occurred in Vesey v. Vesey, 237 Minn. 10, 53 N.W.2d 809 (1952), where we held that a probate court had subject matter jurisdiction to determine whether a decedent's death had been feloniously caused by his widow, a fact which, if proven, would preclude her from taking an inheritance under the decedent's will. The rule which emerges from these cases and others is that "probate courts possess superior and general jurisdiction, and have implied power to do whatever is reasonably necessary to carry out powers expressly conferred."

Id. at 903 (emphasis added; footnote omitted).

We also commented on the probate court's exclusive jurisdiction in Vesey v. Vesey, 237 Minn. 10, 53 N.W.2d 809(19 ...


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