To hear Encinitas attorney Carl Dimeff tell it, retired Redlands schoolteacher Siv Hellevi Ljungwe left her $1.3-million estate to him because she valued his assistance and friendship during her final years with an abusive husband, who preceded her in death.
San Diego Superior Court Judge William Nevitt saw it otherwise.
He seemed swayed by the argument from four charities—promised the money in Ljungwe’s 2004 trust document—that the 77-year-old, mentally-ill woman had been sexually lured and otherwise taken advantage of when she created a new 2008 trust, two years before she died, that directed all the money to Dimeff.
Dimeff’s lawyers said in court papers that their client was “truly surprised that she left him her entire estate.”
The judge invalidated the second trust and ordered Dimeff to return the $1.3 million plus pay a $2.6 million penalty and $335,662 in interest. He found that the lawyer had exhibited “undue influence” on his client, a violation of law and legal ethics.
“If Siv had not been delusional about Carl . . . she would not have left him her estate,” Judge Nevitt wrote. “A mentally healthy Siv would not have left her estate, worth millions of dollars, to Carl, a lawyer she randomly met and hired in 2004.” The U-T San Diego said some of the hundreds of letters between them contained sexual innuendo.
The money is to be divided evenly between Doctors Without Borders, National Public Radio (NPR), UNICEF and the SDSU Research Foundation.
Swedish-born Ljungwe moved to Iowa when she was 22. She picked up a Master’s degree there, and then moved to Redlands where she taught for 27 years in the Rialto Unified School District. She retired and returned to school, entering the graduate program in French at UCLA and traveling to Germany as a Fulbright scholar. She was fluent in four languages, was an outdoorswoman and triathlete, and raised two kids.
But people who knew her said by the time she randomly walked into Dimeff’s law office to discuss obtaining a restraining order against her husband, she was already struggling with mental issues. She had just suffered the death of her second adult son. Within a few months Dimeff was handling her affairs as her attorney.
The judge’s ruling capped a four-year legal battle. The dynamics of the case shifted in January 2014 when Assembly Bill 140 took effect. The law redefines “undue influence” by adopting civil code (pdf), which removed actions approaching “coercion” as a condition of abuse, and emphasized unfairness as a factor in determining improper behavior.