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Johnson v. Nelson

Supreme Court of Nebraska

April 17, 2015

CHAD P. JOHNSON, APPELLANT AND CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
CHRIS M. NELSON, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF STEWART S. MINNICK, DECEASED, ET AL., APPELLEES AND CROSS-APPELLANTS

Page 706

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 707

Appeal from the District Court for Frontier County: DAVID URBOM, Judge.

Nathaniel J. Mustion, of Mousel, Brooks, Garner & Schneider, P.C., L.L.O., and Victor E. Covalt III and Adam R. Little, of Ballew, Covalt & Hazen, P.C., L.L.O., for appellant.

Terry R. Wittler, of Cline, Williams, Wright, Johnson & Oldfather, L.L.P., for appellees.

HEAVICAN, C.J., CONNOLLY, STEPHAN, McCORMACK, MILLER-LERMAN, and CASSEL, JJ. WRIGHT, J., not participating.

OPINION

Page 708

[290 Neb. 705] Stephan, J.

In 2007, Chad P. Johnson and Stewart S. Minnick entered into a written agreement whereby, after Minnick's death, Johnson would purchase farmland he had been renting from Minnick and Minnick's sister for a specified price. The purchase price was to be funded by an insurance policy owned by Johnson on Minnick's life. Following Minnick's death in 2012, the proceeds of the policy were paid to Johnson. He tendered them pursuant to the agreement, but the personal representative of Minnick's estate refused to consummate the sale.

Johnson then brought an action for specific performance and other relief. The district court for Frontier County held the

Page 709

purchase agreement was unenforceable, because (1) Minnick lacked authority to enter into it on behalf of his sister and (2) the agreement provided no means of allocating the purchase price to only that portion of the property which Minnick owned in his own right. The court also held that Johnson's claim for damages was time barred and dismissed a counterclaim filed by the personal representative and Minnick's heirs seeking equitable distribution of the insurance proceeds that had been paid to Johnson. Although our reasoning differs from that of the district court, we affirm its judgment.

BACKGROUND

Facts

Since 1997, Johnson has farmed land owned by Minnick and Minnick's sister Mary E. Nelson pursuant to an oral lease agreement. The lease terms required Johnson to pay cash rent for pastureland and to pay a share of the crop on the remaining land. The land is made up of two contiguous tracts. What is referred to in the record as " Tract 1" was owned solely by Minnick, and what is referred to as " Tract 2" was owned by Minnick and Nelson as tenants in common. Minnick's family had a long association with the land. Johnson always dealt directly with Minnick on matters pertaining to both tracts; Nelson had no direct involvement.

[290 Neb. 706] In the fall of 2006, Johnson met with an insurance agent and discussed taking out a life insurance policy on Minnick and then using the proceeds to purchase the farmland after Minnick's death. The agent was Johnson's cousin. The agent advised Johnson that he would need an insurable interest in Minnick's life and recommended that Johnson and Minnick enter into a buyout agreement. Minnick agreed to the plan and worked with the agent to find a company willing to issue a $500,000 insurance policy on his life. Eventually, an application for life insurance signed by both Johnson and Minnick was submitted to a life insurance company and a policy was issued with an effective date of March 12, 2007. Johnson was the owner of the policy, Minnick was the named insured, and Johnson and his wife were the primary and secondary beneficiaries, respectively. On the effective date of the policy, Minnick was 80 years old.

The buyout agreement is dated January 16, 2007. It specifically provides that Johnson will purchase life insurance on Minnick; that on Minnick's death, Johnson will pay the proceeds of the policy to the personal representative of Minnick's estate; and that the estate shall then transfer the farmland to Johnson. The agreement is signed by Johnson, Minnick, and " Mary Nelson by Stewart Minnick, P.O.A."

Minnick died in January 2012. He never married, and had no surviving children. Nelson was his only surviving sibling. His will, executed in 2002, designates Nelson's three adult children as residual beneficiaries.

Prior to Minnick's death, Johnson paid approximately $170,000 in premiums on the life insurance policy. After Minnick died, the insurer paid the policy proceeds of $500,000 to Johnson. Johnson then tendered this amount to the personal representative of Minnick's estate and requested conveyance of the farmland pursuant to the buyout agreement. The personal representative refused to convey the farmland.

Nelson testified that she and Minnick discussed the possibility of selling the farmland on only one occasion, in late 2006, and that she told Minnick at that time she was unwilling to sell. She denied giving Minnick either verbal permission or [290 Neb. 707] a written power of attorney authorizing

Page 710

him to enter into the agreement with Johnson on her behalf. There is no power of attorney in the record, and the parties agree that Minnick had no authority to enter into the agreement on behalf of Nelson. During his lifetime, Minnick did not disclose the agreement to Nelson, her children, or the attorney who drew his will and regularly handled his financial affairs.

Procedural History

Following Minnick's death, the personal representative published a notice to creditors stating that claims against the estate were to be filed by April 17, 2012. On March 21, Johnson filed a claim against Minnick's estate in the county court for Furnas County, seeking specific performance of the buyout agreement. On April 2, ...


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