Benton County District Court File No. C201666
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Anderson, Judge, and
1. An individual does not lack capacity to enter into a contract to sell real estate if that individual was sufficiently competent to understand the nature and effect of his or her actions at the time of the transaction.
2. Undue influence is not established unless the evidence goes beyond mere speculation to show that the influence actually was exerted and was so dominant that, in making a contract, an individual ceased to act of his or her own volition.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: G. Barry Anderson, Judge
Appellants' conservator and conservatee challenge the district court's confirmation of conservatee-John Lentner's sale of land to respondents Thomas and Kristine Schefers. Appellants claim the district court erred by finding that Lentner was competent to enter a land-sale contract, that respondents are bona fide transferees for value, and that repeated visits by the Schefers to Lentner while he lived in a retirement home did not constitute undue influence. Because we hold that the district court did not err, we affirm and refuse to set aside the sale of Lentner's farm on the grounds of incompetence, lack of bona fide transferee status, or undue influence.
John Lentner was born on June 13, 1913, and owned the farm adjacent to the property of respondents Thomas and Kristine Schefers. In 1999, he moved off the farm to the Country Manor Nursing Home in Sartell, Minnesota.
In May of 2000, Lentner approached Eugene Brenny and offered to sell Brenny his farm for $50,000 and to include his personal property on the farm, consisting principally of machinery and tools, for an extra $10,000. Brenny, who had known Lentner for a number of years, considered this a fair price for the land and testified that Lentner seemed to be competent to complete the transaction. The transaction was never completed.
It is not entirely clear why Lentner never completed the sale to Brenny. Margaret Lentner, Lentner's sister-in-law, testified that Lentner felt that appellant Earl Fisher interfered with Lentner's attempted sale to Brenny. She further testified that Lentner stated he would have sold the farm to Brenny were it not for Fisher. Finally, Margaret Lentner testified that John's ability to think was undiminished at the time of the proposed sale to Brenny.
In the fall of 2000, Kristine Schefers telephoned Lentner at his nursing home residence about purchasing Lentner's farm. Because Lentner was hard of hearing, Schefers relayed her interest in purchasing the farm to Margaret Lentner, who was also a resident at the nursing home and happened to be visiting Lentner when Schefers called. Kristine Schefers thereafter visited Lentner at the nursing home on approximately fifteen separate occasions, engaging in small talk and watching him play cards. Although respondents lived near Lentner's farm for more than ten years, Schefers had not previously visited or spoken with Lentner. Schefers testified that Lentner was always alert and that he was capable of playing cards.
In the spring of 2001, Lentner agreed to sell his farm to respondents for $60,000--$50,000 for the real estate and $10,000 for the following personal property: "[r]ound and [s]quare bales of hay. Old combine, elevator, 3 tractors, sprayers and miscellaneous [sic] items." Lentner told respondents that the deed to the farm was in a safe deposit box at the bank and that he needed to pick it up. Kristine Schefers drove Lentner to the bank to get the deed and took Lentner to Bruce Latterell, an abstractor, who drafted the transfer documents. Latterell testified the sale price "was in the ballpark" and Lentner appeared "quite competent" to consummate the sale. Latterell stated that both Lentner and Schefers indicated which items of personal property were included in the sale and that Lentner responded to every question asked. Schefers then delivered a $60,000 check to Lentner who then signed the deed that Latterell had prepared.
Lentner arrived at the $50,000 asking price for the real estate portion of the transaction from the Benton County tax assessor's valuation of his property. In 2000, Lentner received a tax statement in which the assessor estimated his farm's market value at $78,700 and its limited market value at $58,000. Fisher testified that Lentner did not understand the difference between these two figures and that Fisher's attempts to persuade Lentner that the property was actually worth $78,700 were in vain. When asked specifically about the transaction at his deposition, Lentner stated that he used the $58,000 figure as his offer to sell the property to the Schefers. He could not seem to understand why he received the extra $2,000 and, at one point, Lentner thought he should give $2,000 back to the Schefers because they had paid too much. When asked whether he knew what he was doing when he sold the farm, Lentner stated, "[i]t was a good price [at] that time."
When Lentner notified Fisher of the transaction, Fisher talked with respondents and became convinced Lentner lacked the capacity to complete the sale. Soon after, Fisher took Lentner to visit an attorney and an initial complaint seeking rescission of the contract based on incompetence was brought in Lentner's name. On July 2, 2001, Fisher was appointed special ...