BIEGELMEIER, Retired Justice.
On March 10, 1976, proponents filed a petition for the probate of the Last Will and Testament of Eugene J. Podgursky, deceased. To that petition the United States of America, hereafter sometimes referred to as contestant, filed a "Complaint Contesting Will," alleging the deceased died on January 9, 1976, in the Veterans' Administration Hospital, Ft. Meade, South Dakota, and at the time of his death was unmarried and without heirs; that his estate consisted of funds derived from benefits payable under the laws administered by the Veterans' Administration of the United States and that under 38 U.S.C.A. § 3202(e)
Contestant further alleged that on the date of the will, and for a long time prior thereto, Podgursky was "incompetent to make a last will and testament because of unsoundness of mind and insanity." In addition to and in alternative to that claim, Contestant alleged the "will was not his free and voluntary act but was the product of duress and undue influence against the decedent" without naming Sorensons as the persons who had engaged in the duress or undue influence. The trial court entered findings of fact, conclusions of law and a judgment upholding the will and admitting it to probate. Contestant's appeal asserts the two grounds set out in its complaint, i. e., Podgursky's incompetence and undue influence.
Podgursky was born August 12, 1903, discharged from the U. S. Army on April 15, 1943, admitted to the Veterans' Administration Hospital at Ft. Custer, Michigan, in October, 1944, and transferred to the Veterans' Hospital, Ft. Meade, South Dakota, on June 15, 1960. The evidence showed that when veterans had improved enough while in the hospital so that they were receiving only custodial care they would be placed in foster homes. Under that plan, about one hundred veterans reached that status and were placed to live in private homes. Podgursky, who had earlier been living in another home, was placed in the Sorenson home in 1967. It was while he was living there that the will involved in this controversy was executed on March 8, 1974. A condensed statement of the evidence will indicate the questions involved in the appeal.
For the proponents, James Hood, a practicing attorney of Spearfish, South Dakota, testified he first met Podgursky when the latter came to his office with the Sorensons and another veteran in February, 1974, pursuant to an appointment; that he talked to Podgursky alone in his private office, and that he asked him his name and gathered from him that he wanted a will. Hood asked him if he had any relatives; Podgursky said he had only distant cousins in Russia, but he never heard from them, they never wrote him and he did not know their names or who they were. Hood asked Podgursky to whom he wanted to leave his property and he indicated the Sorensons, with whom he had been living. Podgursky indicated that he never had been married, had no children or other close friends so he wanted the property, whatever he had, to go to the Sorensons, who had been good to him. Asked about his property, he said he owned no real estate, only personal property.
Crystal Marlyst, a secretary of the Hood law firm, testified regarding her conversations with Podgursky both times he was in the office; that at the second visit she read the will to him article by article explaining in simple terms what each one meant; that she thought he understood it; that she then took him into a private office, where Mr. Hood later called her in, again asked Podgursky if everything was satisfactory, to which the latter answered "yes"; that she believed Podgursky knew what he was doing, that he was making his last will and he understood it; that Mrs. Sorenson at all times remained in the reception room and did not say anything to Podgursky.
Contestant offered and the court admitted in evidence Podgursky's VA medical records. Dr. Herman, Chief of Psychiatry and Neurology at the Ft. Meade VA Hospital since 1959, was the first witness for contestant. He testified that he had read and reviewed these records in depth. The witness was asked the date and source of an entry prepared by another doctor in 1966 or 1967 covering 1,881 days Podgursky had been at Ft. Meade. It showed a principal diagnosis by that doctor of chronic schizophrenic reaction; attached to it was an addendum of July 18, 1967, showing the appointment of the bank as guardian. This record considered Podgursky "non employable and requiring constant supervision . . [and] incompetent for VA purposes." A continuing general objection to the medical records and the opinions Dr. Herman drew from them was overruled and the doctor testified that a schizophrenic reaction was a serious mental disease; a few people get well, but those chronic do not and for practical purposes it is not curable.
The evidence then returned to many entries with earlier dates and some without dates. The witness testified he thought the veteran was on Trilafon, a narrow tranquilizer, anti-psychotic medication, for many years including 1973, 1974, and 1975. Trilafon helps in suppressing the manifestations of paranoia but the witness did not see it as curing Podgursky's ailment.
Finally, when asked whether based upon his training and experience and the VA medical records he was able to form an opinion concerning Podgursky's mental competence on March 8, 1974, Dr. Herman answered, "My opinion is he was incompetent for VA purposes throughout that time." Contestant's counsel then tried to get this witness's "interpretation of [Podgursky's] being incompetent distinguishing it from incompetent for VA purposes." Proponents' objection to the question led to this exchange between the trial court and the witness:
On cross-examination Dr. Herman testified that he had never examined Podgursky, nor was there testimony by any doctor who had seen or examined him.
The testimony of contestant's other two witnesses, a VA social worker and a VA attorney, as well as proponents' two VA social workers will be adverted to later in the opinion.
We will first set out the guidelines that govern the execution of wills, their admission to probate and our review of the findings of fact, conclusions of law and judgments of trial courts. SDCL 29-2-3 provides that every person of eighteen years and of sound mind may execute a will for the purpose of disposing of his estate. The court has held consistently that for the purpose of making a will, one has a sound mind if able, without prompting, to comprehend the nature and extent of his property, the persons who are the natural objects of his bounty and the disposition that he desires to make of such property. In re Corson's Estate, 1912, 29 S.D. 14, 135 N.W. 666; Petterson v. Imbsen, 1923, 46 S.D. 540, 194 N.W. 842; In re Estate of Williams, 1974, 88 S.D. 55, 215 N.W.2d 489; Jones v. S. D.
This court does not try such controversies de novo, as its scope of review is governed by SDCL 15-6-52(a)
That, in effect, was written in many of our prior decisions where it was variously stated that the function of this court is not to determine the weight of the testimony nor whether it, or a justice of this court, would have made the same or similar fact determination, but simply to ascertain whether or not there is evidence from which the trial court could properly draw its conclusions. Houck v. Hult, 1934, 63 S.D. 290, 258 N.W. 142; Rhode v. Farup, 1940, 67 S.D. 437, 293 N.W. 632; State Highway Commission v. Foye, 1973, 87 S.D. 206, 205 N.W.2d 100. Nor may we substitute our judgment for that of the trial judge. Brown v. Warner, 1961, 78 S.D. 647, 107 N.W.2d 1; Neb. Elec. Generation & Trans. Co-op. v. Walkling, 1976, S.D., 241 N.W.2d 150. It is also well settled that the credibility of witnesses and weight of evidence is for the trial court and that a reviewing court accepts that version of the evidence, including the inferences that can be fairly drawn therefrom, which is favorable to the trial court's determination. Nicolaus v. Deming, 1966, 81 S.D. 626, 139 N.W.2d 875; Schmidt v. Earl, 1968, 83 S.D. 245, 158 N.W.2d 184; Larson v. Syverson, 1969, 84 S.D. 31, 166 N.W.2d 424. The court has followed and applied these guidelines in will contest appeals, among them the Hobelsberger case and other recent opinions herein cited.
In Hobelsberger, supra, the testator was aged, infirm and had had a mild stroke while in the hospital, where the challenged will was executed. Several persons, including a nurse and neighbors, testified that testator was not able to recognize them, speak intelligently or understand them, and that he did not possess the mental capacity to make a will; the attesting witnesses and two other witnesses testified that testator was mentally competent. About a month after the will was executed testator was found to be suffering from a chronic brain syndrome—"close to senility." In upholding the validity of the will this court, citing In re Blake's Estate, 1965, 81 S.D. 391, 136 N.W.2d 242, wrote: "On review the successful party is entitled to the benefit of his version of the evidence and of all favorable inferences fairly deducible therefrom." 85 S.D. at 288, 181 N.W.2d at 458.
In Jones v. S. D. Children's Home Soc., supra, testator was 85 years old when a will was executed in 1972, had suffered a stroke in 1964 which partially paralyzed him, and was moved to a nursing home in the winter of 1971. Testator did not remember much of what transpired in the winter of 1971. During this time, a petition was filed with the court to declare testator an incompetent, and a guardian was appointed of his estate. The trial court held testator competent and this court affirmed.
In its initial brief, contestant suggests that the appointment of a guardian of the estate of Podgursky
The words in the first sentence of that section do not include the bar of a will and the last sentence expressly authorizes the making of a will under the conditions there stated.
An early and interesting opinion by Justice Brown in Keely v. Moore, 196 U.S. 38, 25 S.Ct. 169, 49 L.Ed. 376 (1904) is in accord with the tenor of this statute, without it having been in effect. There the testator was committed to a private insane asylum as a lunatic upon the certificate of two physicians on December 15, 1885; on February 1, 1886, he was "granted a leave of absence on probation" and on February 24, 1886, he executed the challenged will. It was not until June 26, 1886, that a formal order of discharge from the asylum was entered. Two witnesses who were present at the execution of the will testified to testator's mental capacity at that time. "In addition to the proof of his commitment to the asylum, and of his undoubted insanity prior and for some time subsequent thereto," there was some evidence of insane acts during February of 1886. The whole testimony regarding his insanity was duly submitted to a jury, which under proper instructions found testator possessed of sufficient capacity to make a will. The judgment thereon was affirmed by the court of appeals and by the Supreme Court, which wrote, "Thomson may have been insane to the extent of being dangerous if set at liberty, and yet may have had sufficient mental capacity to make a will." 196 U.S. at 46, 25 S.Ct. at 172, 49 L.Ed. at 380.
The testimony of Dr. Herman must be viewed with at least two qualifications: First, the difference in the medical and legal use of the term "sanity" and, second, that while it was the opinion of an expert, it and all entries in the medical record remained opinions. There is a difference in the legal and medical use of the word "sanity." Sanity is not necessarily synonymous with the capacity to make a testamentary disposition. Stormon v. Weiss, N.D., 65 N.W.2d 475, 510. One may lack mental capacity to such an extent that according to medical science he is not of sound mind and memory, and nevertheless retain the mental capacity to execute a will. In re Graham's Estate, Sur., 63 N.Y.S.2d 572; Keely v. Moore, supra. This distinction was also voiced by the Wyoming Supreme Court when it wrote:
As was said by the Supreme Court of California in In re Arnold's Estate, 16 Cal.2d 573, 585, 107 P.2d 25, 32:
See also Perkins v. Perkins, 116 Iowa 253, 90 N.W. 55; In re Bose's Estate, 136 Neb. 156, 285 N.W. 319; In re Heller's Estate, 233 Iowa 1356, 11 N.W.2d 586.
That the testimony of an expert is an opinion is discussed and decided in Smith v. State, 1972, 259 Ind. 187, 285 N.E.2d 275, 55 A.L.R.3d 546,
A contention made that an expert's opinion in a will contest be given conclusive effect received this answer by the court in In re Wynne's Estate, 1966, 239 Cal.App.2d 369, 371, 48 Cal.Rptr. 656, 658:
Briefly summarizing the evidence, it appears all three witnesses for contestant were in its employ; that Dr. Herman had never examined Podgursky and had never seen him. His evidence consisted wholly of explanations of, and comments and qualified opinions based on, entries in the medical records made by other doctors, one entry of which is referred to as that doctor's "impression." No showing was made that the doctors who made entries as late as 1975 were not available as witnesses. VA social worker MacDonald, who last saw Podgursky in 1970, when he was better able to speak English and understand ordinary conversation, testified that Podgursky was "getting along pretty well then" and that he "appreciated the fact she had gotten him out of the VA hospital." VA attorney Ranney saw him twice, and in 1967 and on another date not definitely set, made written reports thereof; he read these two reports and reports made by other VA agents of their visits. These reports indicated that Podgursky had no desire to use his spending money, except that he once desired to buy a large easy chair, which was purchased and used by him; that he spent much time watching television and smoking cigarettes; that he used $20 a month spending money for cigarettes and snacks; that Mrs. Sorenson purchased candy and other items for his personal enjoyment and that he did considerable walking around town. On the part of proponents, the attesting witnesses were disinterested and their testimony, though subject to extensive and thorough cross-examination, was detailed, clear and definite, and supports the trial court's findings that Podgursky had the requisite testamentary capacity
Unlike the question of competency, the burden of proving undue influence is on
The Anders opinion then follows this quotation by a statement of the essential elements of undue influence and
So here, there is no evidence in the record that undue influence was actually exerted by Sorensons, and none was claimed in contestant's "Complaint." The evidence is undisputed that the two conversations between Hood and Podgursky relative to, and the execution of, the will were held in private offices without the presence of Sorensons.
In Hobelsberger, supra, contestants similarly contended that the Ramls, to whom testator left all his property, had the motive and opportunity to exert undue influence on the testator as the Ramls asked their attorney to see him to draw the will. The court wrote, "there must be evidence they [Ramls] did exert such influence. . . . That the Ramls were provided for in the will and had an opportunity to influence him does not prove that they did." 85 S.D. at 290, 181 N.W.2d at 459. Returning to the Anders opinion, the court there stated:
Podgursky told Hood that Sorensons had been good to him in the last seven or eight years of his life; that presented a reasonable explanation of his bequest to them. No presumption of undue influence is raised from the fact that the benefits received under a will were obtained by acts of kindness of the beneficiary. In re Estate of Hobelsberger, supra. See also In re Wynne's Estate, supra.
Of the two VA social workers who were witnesses for proponents, one, a home finder and visitor, testified that the Sorensons were "the best sponsors we ever had," and the other said that when Podgursky first came to the hospital they were "not aware he could speak English," but when she visited the Sorenson home in 1973 and 1974 he then spoke English, though slowly. This indicated his improvement. We have not overlooked the testimony that attorney Hood prepared and there was executed a will by veteran Timmel which bequeathed his property to the Sorensons. There was no evidence that the probate of that will was objected to or contested by the United States.
On our review of the issue of undue influence, the trial court's finding that Sorensons did not unduly influence testator cannot be set aside. Thus the judgment is affirmed.
WOLLMAN, C. J., and MORGAN, J., concur.
DUNN and ZASTROW, JJ., dissent.
BIEGELMEIER, Retired Justice, sitting for PORTER, J., disqualified.
While the majority opinion states the usual rules for upholding a will, it overlooks the fact that the respondents were hauling these mentally deficient people to a lawyer for the purpose of making wills in which the respondents were the sole beneficiaries. In this instance, two of these unfortunate people were taken at the same time! It strains the imagination to accept the testimony that these two men, acting independently, suddenly and simultaneously decided that making a will was an important step in their lives. We must remember that these respondents are dealing with exceptionally vulnerable people, and the usual rules for upholding or voiding a will have little significance. We should instead look to the evident fact that these poor people had no incentive for drawing a will except that supplied by their guardians. A few months of kind treatment (which they were entitled to in any event) makes these veterans putty in the hands of their guardians.
The respondents were in a strictly fiduciary relationship with the veterans entrusted to their care. They were being well paid for providing the comforts of life to these people in their declining years. They should not be permitted to manipulate these people for their own financial gain. Their actions shock my conscience, and this decision condones a practice that is not only unsavory but downright dangerous to a patient. It opens the door for all operators of foster homes for these unfortunates to follow a similar practice. It could well encourage the unscrupulous to enter this line of work for the sole purpose of reaping the harvest of bequests available upon the deaths of these veterans. When the termination of life becomes a matter of monetary gain for the guardians of these unfortunate people, the evil results of this program may well outweigh the good which inspired its creation by the Veterans' Administration.
I would reverse the judgment.
I am authorized to state that ZASTROW, J., joins in this dissent.