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Jury to hear Clifford estate challenge

A jury will be asked to resolve questions over the estate of the late Thomas J. Clifford, whose sons are challenging the 2007 will that names his widow, Gayle Clifford, as his personal representative and leaves the estate largely to her.

Tom Clifford
Tom Clifford, former UND president and a North Dakota Rough Rider Award recipient, relaxes in his Grand Forks home in 2007. Clifford died Feb. 4 this year at age 87. (Herald photo by Jackie Lorentz)

A jury will be asked to resolve questions over the estate of the late Thomas J. Clifford, whose sons are challenging the 2007 will that names his widow, Gayle Clifford, as his personal representative and leaves the estate largely to her.

"Their father may not have been competent (to revise his will in 2007) in that he was unduly influenced," the sons' attorney, Susan Ellison, said Thursday in an informal probate hearing in North Dakota District Court in Grand Forks.

District Judge Karen Braaten granted Ellison's request that the case be moved to formal probate proceedings, based on the will challenge, and she scheduled trial for late May 2010.

Braaten declined requests that the estate be placed under supervised administration pending formal probate and that Gayle Clifford be required to post a bond.

"There is no indication ... that the administrator has done anything improper," Braaten said, and formal proceedings will "sufficiently protect the interests of Steven and Thomas Clifford," sons of the late UND president by his first wife, Florence.

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A bond would be "an unnecessary cost to the estate," the judge said.

Clifford, UND's top administrator for 21 years and a popular presence on campus and beyond for a half-century, died Feb. 4 at age 87. He had been in hospice care at his home.

In February, the court granted an application for informal probate of a will dated April 9, 2007, and named Gayle Clifford -- at Tom Clifford's written request -- as his personal representative.

Thomas Clifford's sons petitioned the court in April, stating they didn't know "whether the document purported to be a will and submitted for informal probate was validly executed."

They also suggested in the April court filing "that circumstances surrounding the death of the decedent and the actions and statements made by the appointed personal representative, Gayle Clifford, raise the issue of the validity of the document purported to be a will."

Estate questions

There were indications during Thursday's hearing that the estate may not be as substantial as people might expect.

Ellison told the court that Gayle Clifford had been heard to make statements to her ailing husband that "they were running out of money." Thomas Clifford "looked to her to handle the finances" and believed her account of their situation, Ellison said, and that "influenced his decision in 2007 to change (his) will ... to provide more for her."

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The lengthy time set before the will dispute goes before a jury will allow the parties to process investments and otherwise determine the precise extent of the estate. Also, Ellison, of West Fargo, indicated she still seeks some medical and pharmaceutical records. "There is a significant amount of discovery yet to complete before we are ready for trial," she said.

Sarah Andrews Herman, a Fargo attorney who joined Patrick Fisher of Grand Forks in representing Gayle Clifford, told the court that Tom Clifford's sons "have not offered any evidence whatsoever" that would justify overturning the 2007 will.

"They have offered not one iota of evidence to suggest that Tom Clifford was not competent in 2007," she said. "People update their wills all the time." At a trial, she added, "There are many, many people who will testify that Tom Clifford was competent ... bright (and) active."

The dispute over the will has its roots in differences within the family, Herman suggested.

"Apparently, the sons do not like their stepmother very much," she said. "But that's not the issue."

Under terms of an earlier will, Ellison said, Clifford's estate was to be placed in a trust with a lifetime interest to Gayle Clifford, passing equally to Tom Clifford's sons and Gayle Clifford's son and daughter by a previous marriage.

The farmland, a half-section in Cavalier County and three-quarters of a section in Towner County, was to go outright to the Clifford sons under the previous will. The 2007 will leaves the land as a life estate to Gayle Clifford with a remainder interest to the sons. They would receive it upon her death.

Seeking evidence

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Herman, arguing against the need for supervised administration of the estate or a bond, said the deed to the land already has been given to the sons. "There is no property that needs protection under a bond," she said. "They've received what they are to receive under the will."

Steven Clifford, of Sherrill, Iowa, attended Thursday's hearing. Thomas Clifford Jr., of Casper, Wyo., participated by speaker phone.

Gayle Clifford was not present in court.

The sons also seek release of evidence gathered by Grand Forks police officers called to the Clifford residence on Reeves Drive on Jan. 17, after pills were found in a fruit salad that Clifford's adult granddaughter was feeding to him.

Braaten held that the motion for release of that evidence was not a part of the probate proceeding. Ellison indicated she would file it in a separate proceeding.

The granddaughter had been feeding Clifford when he spat out what appeared to be two pills. A third pill was found in the remaining fruit salad.

Police collected medications and other evidence in the house and interviewed the granddaughters, Clifford, his wife and others, all of whom denied having had anything to do with putting the pills in the food.

The pills were sent to the State Crime Lab in Bismarck, where they were determined to be legitimately prescribed low doses of blood pressure medication.

Jan. 21, police sent a 70-page investigation report to Grand Forks County State's Attorney Peter Welte, who reviewed the file and a report from the crime lab. He declined to prosecute, saying he had found "no tangible evidence" of how the medication got into the food or whether it had been placed there in an attempt to harm Clifford.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: CAVALIER COUNTY
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