Seventy-Year-Old Watershed Case Still Influences Improper Execution Lawsuits Today

Ever since the Iowa Supreme Court ruled In re Estate of Fordonski in 2004, estate dispute attorneys have received little news from the judiciary on improper execution trends—the deafening silence is most likely attributed to the Court telling us everything we needed to know about the issue back in 1950.

Let’s now turn the clock back seventy years and consider a family dispute In re Klein’s Estate (Iowa 1950), a case that provoked comprehensive policy on improper execution and a probate doctrine that the Iowa courts would leave untouched for decades to come.

Husband Helps Wife Execute and Amend Her Will

Johanna Klein executed a will with her husband Abe at her side in 1945 where the eighty-eight-year-old testatrix bequeathed:

  • a 177-acre ranch to Abe’s son, John;
  • a 140-acre farm to her grandsons, Carl and Merlin;
  • a 160-acre home to her grandson, Earl;
  • $2000 ($29K in 2019) to her daughter, Helen; and,
  • a life estate in all three properties to her husband.

Johanna’s three homesteads valued over $120,000 ($1.7M in 2019), and Abe held a limited interest in the entire estate.

Two years later, Joanna added a codicil (supplement document) to the will that made the following changes to her estate plan:

  • Helen would take a life estate instead of $2000, of which would transfer to Abe’s son John and Abe’s daughter upon Helen’s death.
  • Carl and Merlin’s 140-acre farm would go to Carl’s ex-wife Endin after she pays $3500 in cash ($50K in 2019) to Carl, Merlin and Abe’s son John.
  • Abe would hold a fee simple (free interest and access) in all estate property and assets of which 75% would pass on to Abe’s son John and 25% to Earl upon Abe’s death.
Witnesses Say the Document Executions Were Unusual

Abe asked Enid to invite their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Vander Pol, to witness Johanna’s will signing ceremony in 1945. Later that evening, the Vander Pols arrived, and according to testimony, “Abe had the will on the table and ready to execute.”

Johanna signed the document first, followed by the Vander Pols, who said the testatrix never spoke and seemed confused about where and how to sign (Abe had to give her instruction).

Two years later, Endin called Mr. and Mrs. Knopf (residents on Johanna’s farm) to witness the codicil’s execution. Again, Abe laid the document on a table ready to sign when the couple arrived. The parties executed the will modification without saying much to each other, and the Klein’s made no statement beforehand about the document’s contents.

Mr. Knopf however allegedly told an attorney later “he knew nothing about what was in the paper they signed” and that it was Abe (not Endin) who invited them to come over and Abe never mentioned why.

The witnesses also recalled Joanna was silent the entire time, and they didn’t remember if the testatrix executed the document in their presence. Yet, Mr. Knopf refused to sign a sworn statement to these facts because “he didn’t want trouble with the Kleins.”

Knopf later reversed his testimony after speaking with Abe, Johanna and their lawyer, claiming he definitely recalled the testatrix signing the document because “it was the first time he ever saw her write her name.”

Both the Vander Pols and the Knopfs later claimed that Abe never told them why he needed their help and that the couples “would have never known what they were witnessing” if Endin had said nothing.

Finally, all four witnesses affirmed they never read “the attestation clause” before signing, and neither of them heard Johanna declare the documents “to be her last will and testament.”

Siblings Claim Mother Improperly Executed Her Will

John served as the executor and presented Johanna’s will and codicil in probate after she passed away in 1948. Helen, Carl and Merlin challenged the testamentary document, arguing Johanna improperly executed her estate plan, lacked testamentary capacity to make changes and claimed her husband Abe unduly influenced his wife into leaving him and his children everything.
The district court found for the challengers after a quick trial, setting aside the will and codicil of which sent Johanna’s estate to intestate succession proceedings. Abe, Jon and Endin thereafter appealed.

One appellant claimed the improper execution issue was a matter of law that never should have reached the jury for consideration. Johanna’s daughter and grandchildren contrarily argued the question was a matter for the fact finders to answer based on the evidence presented.

Supreme Court Sets Decades-Long Comprehensive Precedence

Upon review in 1950, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the lower court overstepped its discretion when holding—Johanna improperly executed her will; the husband unduly influenced his wife; and the testatrix lacked testamentary capacity.

The favorable decision effectively reinstated the original will and codicil, and although the Court reversed all three controversies in the case, for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus only on the improper execution issue.

  1. Iowa Probate Code Reaffirmed
    The Court first confirmed Section 633.7 found in the 1946 Code of Iowa (§633.279 today)—testamentary documents must “be in writing, signed by the testator” and “subscribed” and “witnessed by two competent persons.” The statute stemmed from a doctrine the Court established nearly a hundred years prior In re Boyens’ Will (Iowa 1867). Boyens’ further presumed that a testator’s compliance with §633.7 “is all that is necessary for proper execution.”
  2. Testatrix’s Implied Invitation to Witnesses is Sufficient
    Section 633.7 also affirmed that the witnesses must endorse the will “at the request of the maker.” The Court however recognized that In re Estate of Harter (Iowa 1940) it held it’s unnecessary for a testator to “personally invite the witnesses to attest to the instrument” when implied conduct is present.In other words, Johanna herself did not have to formally ask the Vander Pols or the Knopfs to witness the signings if her implied conduct and the surrounding circumstances gave notice to the witness why they were there.
  3. Will Readings Are Unnecessary
    The court also ruled the law did not oblige Johanna to “express the contents” of the will to the witnesses or “declare to the witnesses the character and purpose of the instrument” prior to its execution.Beginning in 1898 and finding as recently as 1943, the Court has consistently held a testator may “use signs, gestures, or other conduct” to indicate the nature and purpose of the instrument [the will], “which amounts to what is called publication.” Therefore, the lower court erred when holding Johanna’s “silent acquiescence” during the signing ceremonies invalidated the documents’ execution.
  4. Reversal of Estate Law Precedence
    The Klein doctrine also completely reversed a holding the court made three years prior In Re Estate of Huston (Iowa 1947) of which shifted the burden to the plaintiff to prove the will’s “publishing.” According to Chief Justice Garfield, the Huston Court should not have included the word “publishing.”
  5. Improper Execution is a Matter of Law
    Justice Garfield further held improper execution of wills and codicils appears to be a “matter of law.”In Klein, all four witnesses signed Johanna’s will in her presence and without her objection. The testatrix further was not compelled to tell the witnesses what they were signing (it was already implied) nor explain the will to the witnesses before they executed their attestations—according to Garfield, judges can scrutinize these matters through interpretation of statutes, probate code, case law, and legal principles to find whether improper execution took place.
  6. No Attestation Clause Required
    In 1917, the Court ruled In re Bybee’s Estate (Iowa 1917), when the testator signs his last will and testament, and witnesses duly attest to it, the parties would have properly executed the document despite the testator or the witnesses “not knowing the law declared the writing to be a will.”Justice Garfield accordingly reaffirmed Bybee in the Klein Doctrine when holding failure of the Vander Pols or the Knopfs to read the attestation clause in Johanna’s will is no greater than had the testatrix’s lawyer omitted the clause (which the law allows). The Court therefore unanimously ruled attestation clauses in wills “are not required for proper execution.”No Need to Recall Will Signing Ceremonies When Testifying

    The district court found Mr. Knopf had testified (before reversing) that he didn’t remember if Johanna signed her codicil in his presence—Justice Garfield held the lower court erred when submitting this evidence to the jury.

    The law presumes Johanna and the witnesses executed the codicil properly, since the Knopfs signed “at testatrix’s implied request” and without the need for an attestation certificate, according to the Court.

    In Garfield’s opinion, Mr. Knopf’s prior “uncertainty or failure of memory,” was a matter of law consideration that the presiding judge should have deemed insufficient to overcome the presumption at hand.

    Judge Garfield further cited over eight case law doctrines in his opinion when holding “proof of a will’s execution does not depend upon the memory of the subscribing witnesses,” or “their recollection as to the particulars attending the execution of the will.”

Conclusion

These seventy-year-old improper execution rules have stood until today. Estate planning attorneys observe them when formally executing their clients’ wills and codicils using Iowa Code §633.279 as their guide of which simply reads:

All wills and codicils (i) must be in writing; (ii) signed by the testator (ii) declared by the testator to be the testator’s will; and (iii) witnessed, at the testator’s request, by two competent persons who sign as witnesses in the testator’s presence and in the presence of each other.

However, as a matter of law, any will executed properly prior to 1964 (as in the Klein’s case) is valid and is effective immediately upon the testator’s death.

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