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In re Estate of Gassmann

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 28, 2015

In the Estate of John T. Gassmann, deceased;
v.
Maggie A. Oakland, Respondent and Appellant Bell State Bank & Trust, f/k/a State Bank & Trust, as Personal Representative of the Estate of John T. Gassmann, Deceased, Petitioner and Appellee

Page 326

Appeal from the District Court of Barnes County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable John E. Greenwood, Judge.

Berly D. Nelson (argued) and Ian McLean (appeared), Fargo, N.D., for petitioner and appellee.

David J. Chapman, Fargo, N.D., for respondent and appellant.

Margaret A. Oakland (appeared), Valley City, N.D., respondent and appellant.

Carol Ronning Kapsner, Lisa Fair McEvers, Dale V. Sandstrom, Daniel J. Crothers, Gerald W. VandeWalle, C.J.

OPINION

Page 327

Carol Ronning Kapsner, Justice.

[¶1] Margaret Oakland appeals from a judgment dismissing her objection to the probate of the will of her father, John T. Gassmann, after a jury found she failed to establish his will was the product of an insane delusion and from an order denying her motion for a new trial. Oakland argues the district court erred in excluding relevant evidence at trial and the court did not adequately address issues raised in her motion for new trial. We affirm.

Page 328

I

[¶2] Oakland is Gassmann's only biological child. She graduated from high school in 1991, and her parents separated around that time and subsequently divorced after Gassmann experienced incidents in which he believed his wife and others were involved in a conspiracy to poison him for his farmland. In the divorce proceeding, a psychiatric and psychological evaluation by a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist diagnosed Gassmann with a " delusional disorder."

[¶3] According to Oakland, Gassmann believed Oakland's mother was using Oakland to facilitate the poisoning conspiracy and her relationship with Gassmann was permanently and deleteriously altered by his insane delusions, which continued until his death. Oakland claimed Gassmann insisted she stop all communications with her mother, but she refused and Gassmann thereafter distanced himself from her because of the poisoning conspiracy. According to Oakland, Gassmann would have devised his farmland to her but for his insane delusion.

[¶4] According to Bell State Bank & Trust, Gassmann was misdiagnosed with a delusional disorder in the 1993 divorce, but actually suffered from a brain tumor and related acromegaly, and he had the tumor removed in 1995. According to Bell State, Gassmann's symptoms disappeared after the surgery, but his relationship with Oakland remained distant and disconnected because Gassmann did not approve of her decisions about education, employment, and marriage.

[¶5] After divorcing Oakland's mother, Gassmann began a relationship with Bonnie Bowman, which lasted until his death in February 2012, and he developed a close relationship with her three children. On December 6, 2011, Gassmann executed a will after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Gassmann's estate plan devised certain property to Oakland and his will operated with a revocable living trust to devise his interest in his family's farmland to other individuals, including some of Bowman's children.

[¶6] Gassmann died in February 2012, and Bell State petitioned for formal probate of his will and for appointment as his personal representative under the will. Oakland objected to the probate of Gassmann's will, claiming he executed the will under an insane delusion. Oakland challenged the validity of Gassmann's revocable living trust in a separate action, but that action was dismissed as untimely. See Oakland v. Bowman, 2013 ND 217, ¶ ¶ 1, 12, 840 N.W.2d 88 (affirming dismissal of Oakland's untimely objection to revocable trust). Oakland thereafter moved to amend her objection to the probate of Gassmann's will to include an objection to the revocable living trust, and the district court denied her motion.

[¶7] Oakland initially retained counsel to contest Gassmann's will, but she subsequently represented herself. Before a scheduled jury trial, Bell State filed several motions in limine, including motions to exclude evidence, testimony, comment, or reference at trial to Gassmann's military experience, his belief that Oakland was not his biological daughter, his statements relating to his mental state after he executed the December 2011 will, his remote statements in the 1990s relating to the poisoning conspiracy, and his statements evidencing his mental state which were not related to the poisoning conspiracy. Bell State also sought to exclude evidence about Gassmann's amendments to his revocable living trust after he executed his December 2011 will, and his nonprobate transfers of property. Bell State generally claimed the evidence identified in the motions in limine was not relevant under

Page 329

N.D.R.Ev. 401 and 402, and even if relevant, the probative value of the evidence was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence under N.D.R.Ev. 403.

[¶8] The district court granted Bell State's motions in limine, but generally informed Oakland the motions could be revisited in the context of the evidence presented at trial, including the parties' experts' opinions about the symptoms of Gassmann's alleged insane delusion. The court advised Oakland it did not then know the extent of the experts' testimony about Gassmann's alleged insane delusion and would allow her to introduce evidence covered by the motions in limine to the extent her experts relied on that evidence to conclude Gassmann was suffering from an insane delusion. A jury returned a verdict finding Oakland failed to establish Gassmann's will was the product of an insane delusion, and the district court thereafter denied her motion for a new trial.

II

[¶9] Under N.D.C.C. § 30.1-15-07, a party contesting a will has the burden of proving lack of testamentary capacity. Matter of Estate of Aune, 478 N.W.2d 561, 564 (N.D. 1991). Whether a testator was suffering from an insane delusion which materially affected a will is a question of fact. Id. A will contestant must establish a will was the product of the insane delusion and the testator, if not laboring under the insane delusion, would have devised the property differently. Id.

[¶10] An insane delusion is a belief in facts that no rational person would believe, not founded upon evidence, and not removable by evidence. Aune, 478 N.W.2d at 564; Matter of Estate of Flaherty, 446 N.W.2d 760, 765 (N.D. 1989). In Flaherty, this Court " distinguish[ed] between mistaken beliefs not produced by mental illness, simply because they are based on evidence which is incomplete or misleading, and those irrational false beliefs produced by a mental illness," explaining:

" An insane delusion, therefore, is more than just a mere delusion, a false belief, an eccentricity, a clash between two persons of different temperament or personality, or a religious or racial prejudice of ancestral origin. It is a delusion that is the product of a sick or diseased mind and that is held to without evidence or rational basis."

446 N.W.2d at 765 (quoting 1 Bowe-Parker: Page on Wills § 12.29, p. 631 (1960)).

III

[¶11] Oakland argues the district court abused its discretion in granting and partially upholding Bell State's motions in limine to exclude broad categories of probative circumstantial evidence of Gassmann's mental illness. She argues the court erred in granting five overlapping motions in limine excluding: (1) Gassmann's " remote" statements in the 1990s relating to the claimed poisoning conspiracy; (2) Gassmann's " post-will" statements relating to his mental state after executing the December 2011 will; (3) Gassmann's statements evidencing his mental state which were not related to the poisoning conspiracy; (4) Gassmann's belief that Oakland was not his biological daughter; and (5) evidence of Gassmann's military experience. On appeal, Oakland claims the court's rulings on the motions in limine precluded her from ...


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