In re the Estate of Wayne A. Ulrich, Deceased.
Blue Earth County District Court File No. 07PR11156
Karl L. Cambronne, Francis J. Rondoni, Jeffrey D. Bores, Chestnut Cambronne, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)
William A. Moeller, Kevin A. Velasquez, Anna G. Fisher, Blethen, Gage & Krause, P.L.L.P., Mankato, Minnesota (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge; Hudson, Judge; and Schellhas, Judge.
Appellant challenges summary judgment dismissing her objection to probate of her uncle's 2004 will and claim for conversion. Because the district court did not err in concluding that appellant's evidence failed to establish any genuine issues of material fact to avoid summary judgment on her claim of undue influence and that appellant lacks standing to pursue a claim of conversion, we affirm.
Wayne A. Ulrich (decedent) was 87 years old when he died in January 2011. Decedent never married and had no children. Decedent lived his whole life on the Ulrich family's heritage farm. Decedent's only sibling, Raymond Ulrich, lived on and farmed the property adjacent to the Ulrich family farm. In time periods relevant to this action, Raymond Ulrich was a widower, father of two adult, married daughters, Donna Schultz and Bette Schmidt, and grandfather to his daughters' eleven children.
Decedent did not have a close relationship with his brother, his nieces, or his grandnieces and grandnephews. Prior to 2004, Bette Schmidt, who lives in Iowa, visited Raymond Ulrich 10 to 12 times per year and saw decedent on about half of those visits. Donna Schultz and her husband, Joel Schultz, lived near decedent's farm. Of the family, Joel Schultz had the closest relationship with decedent. Joel Schultz spoke with decedent about once a week and he and Donna Schultz visited decedent about once a month. Other neighbors and friends visited with decedent and assisted him with farming and household tasks, especially prior to 2004, after which respondent Susan Sorenson Worlds (Sorenson)  became one of the primary persons who assisted decedent.
All witnesses described decedent as a person of strong opinions, not easily influenced, who knew what he wanted and did exactly what he wanted to do. In 1992, attorney Douglas Johanson drafted a will for decedent that provided for the care of decedent's dog and devised his estate in designated shares among his nieces and their children.
Sorenson's friendship with decedent began in the mid-1990s. Sorenson passed decedent's farm on her way to and from work. She bought sweet corn from him and began to assist him in getting his mail from the mailbox that was across the highway from decedent's farm. When the friendship between Sorenson and decedent began, decedent had been a long-time friend of Wayne and Deborah Hohenstein, who, for some years, had assisted decedent with farming and household and personal chores. Decedent spoke daily on the telephone with Deborah Hohenstein until decedent abruptly distanced himself from the Hohensteins, accusing them and Raymond Ulrich of taking things from his home while he was hospitalized in 2004.
On his return from the hospital in June 2004, decedent received daily home-healthcare assistance which continued until he entered a nursing home in 2007. He also began to rely more and more on Sorenson to help him with various household chores and personal grooming. Decedent was included in many Sorenson family events and began to look upon Sorenson as a daughter and considered her family as part of his family.
In June 2004, Johanson drafted a power of attorney naming decedent's neighbor, Steve Johnson, as attorney-in-fact with the power to "protect [decedent's] building site and all buildings and property located thereon. . . . [and] not allow anyone to enter my house except to help maintain it and care for my dog . . .." In July 2004, decedent called Johanson and told him that Sorenson was taking him to doctor appointments, helping with the dog, helping Steve Johnson, and had decedent's permission to be in his house. Decedent did not ask Johanson to take any action based on this information. But in October 2004, decedent asked Johanson to prepare a new power of attorney making Sorenson his attorney-in-fact and giving her broad authority. He also wanted a new will leaving everything to Sorenson, and, in the event she predeceased him, leaving everything to Sorenson's husband or children.
Johanson, who did not know how long decedent had known Sorenson or what their relationship was, drafted a power of attorney for Sorenson that did not give her the power to transfer decedent's funds to herself. Johanson met with decedent in decedent's home to review the requested documents. Johanson testified in his deposition that decedent stated that Sorenson would not accept a power of attorney that did not include a provision that she could transfer his property to her and that decedent wanted that restriction removed from the draft because Sorenson was "going to take care of him and keep him out of a nursing home." Johanson, who testified that it was always his practice to include such limitations in a power of attorney for a non-relative, declined to draft the power of attorney or will that decedent requested.
Decedent then contacted Richard Corcoran of Blethen, Gage & Krause, P.L.L.P., in Mankato. Sorenson testified that she recommended Corcoran based on information about him she received from a business acquaintance. Sorenson was not a client of that law firm. Sorenson drove decedent to and from the appointment with Corcoran, but she was not present for decedent's meeting with Corcoran and others from the law firm.
Because decedent was asking for an unusual disposition of his estate, attorney Corcoran had decedent meet privately with two other attorneys in the law firm to assess decedent's competence and whether he was being unduly influenced to make the power of attorney and change his will. All three lawyers who met and talked with decedent wrote memos to the file concerning their meetings with decedent. All of the attorneys concluded that decedent was a competent, very strong-willed person who made his own decisions and who was not likely to be unduly influenced.
The memos reflect that decedent explained to each of the attorneys, in individual conversations, that he was not very close to his brother, his nieces, or their children, and that Sorenson and her family were more like family to him than his own family. He explained that his nieces and their children would be inheriting his brother's farm and that was ...