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Sons of former UND President Clifford challenge will

Thomas Clifford

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The sons of the late Thomas J. Clifford have challenged a will filed in Grand Forks District Court on behalf of the former University of North Dakota president and asked for formal probate proceedings.

District Judge Karen Braaten ordered a hearing on June 11 on the petition submitted earlier this month by Stephen Clifford, Sherrill, Iowa, and Thomas J. Clifford Jr., Casper, Wyo.

The petition notes that on Feb. 18, the court granted an application "for informal probate of a document purported to be a will dated April 9, 2007." Under terms of that will, Gayle Clifford, Thomas Sr.'s widow, was appointed his personal representative.

Stephen and Thomas Clifford Jr., sons of the late president and his first wife, Florence, say in their petition that they do not know "whether the document purported to be a will ... and submitted for informal probate was validly executed" by their father.

They also suggest "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."

The elder Clifford, UND's president for 21 years and a dominating campus presence for a half-century, died Feb. 4 at the age of 87. He had been in hospice care at home since his release from Altru Hospital on Jan. 6.

He was hailed by Gov. John Hoeven as "one of the greatest North Dakotans," but just days after the funeral, startling details emerged concerning a January incident at the Clifford home involving a police investigation and an apparent rift within the extended family.

On Jan. 17, police were called to the Reeves Drive home by an adult granddaughter of the former president. With another granddaughter, she had been feeding Clifford a fruit salad when he spat out what appeared to be two pills. A third pill was found in the remaining fruit salad.

Police interviewed the granddaughters, Clifford, his wife and others, all of whom denied having had anything to do with putting pills in the food. The pills were sent to the State Crime Lab, where they were determined to be legitimately prescribed low doses of blood pressure medication.

On Jan. 21, police submitted a 70-page request for "review for charges" to the Grand Forks County state's attorney's office. But after reviewing the file and a supplemental report from the crime lab, State's Attorney Peter Welte said he found "no tangible evidence" of how the medication got into the fruit salad or whether it had been placed there with the intent to commit a crime. He declined to prosecute.

In their petition for formal probate proceedings, the Clifford sons "assert that a prior will validly executed by the decedent draws in question the validity of the document purported to be a will dated April 9, 2007."

They also assert that a request for information concerning the validity of the April 9, 2007, will was refused by Gayle Clifford and her attorney, Patrick Fisher.

Fisher declined comment Thursday on the Clifford sons' filings.

The will dated April 9, 2007, leaves Thomas J. Clifford's estate to his wife and names her his personal representative in settling the estate, which includes property in Grand Forks, a Minnesota lake home and farmland in northeastern North Dakota.

The informal probate filing specifies that if Gayle Clifford were unable or unwilling to serve as personal representative for the estate, the responsibility would go to her children by a previous marriage.

Two parcels of land are left as a life estate to Gayle Clifford, with a remainder interest to Tom Clifford's sons on her death.