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In re Estate of Sampson

Supreme Court of Iowa

October 25, 2013

In the Matter of the ESTATE OF Carroll Irving SAMPSON, Deceased. Cheryl Ann Murken and Mary Ann Smith, Coexecutors of the Christine Rosilia Sampson Estate, Appellants.

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John D. Jordan and Meredith C. Mahoney Nerem of Jordan & Mahoney Law Firm, P.C., Boone, for appellants.

John P. Dollar and Scott S. Riemenschneider of Wilson, Deege, Dollar, Despotovich & Riemenschneider, West Des Moines, for appellees.


This case requires us to examine the interplay between two sections of the Iowa Probate Code that address deadlines to reopen estates. In 1993, a husband died, and his will was probated. His wife received almost all of his property pursuant to a residuary clause in the will. Nearly eighteen years later, in 2011, the wife died. At that time, a number of relatives who had not been formally notified of the probate proceedings in 1993 reviewed the husband's will. They brought an action to reopen the estate, asserting that a different residuary clause in the husband's will entitled them to the husband's property and that they should have received it in the earlier proceedings.

The relatives' petition was opposed by the coexecutors of the wife's estate. Among other things, they asserted that the petition was barred by section 633.488 of the Iowa Probate Code, which provides a five-year time limit from the final report to reopen settlement of an estate when a party did not receive formal notice of the final report and accounting. The district court and the court of appeals disagreed with this argument. They found that section 633.489 of the Code, which allows estates to be reopened without time limit under certain circumstances, controlled here. On further review, we hold that section 633.488 is the applicable statute and therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I. Facts and Procedural History.

Carroll Sampson, a resident of Story City, was married to Christine Sampson. They did not have any children. In 1991, Carroll executed a will which nominated Christine as executor. The will contained two residuary clauses. In article two of his will, Carroll stated:

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I give any automobiles, household furniture or furnishings, silverware, china, crystal, books, wearing apparel and other tangible personal effects owned by me at my death to Spouse, if she survives me for a period of thirty days. I give the residue of my estate to Spouse, if she survives me for thirty days.
In article four, Carroll stated:
The rest residue and remainder of my estate I divide into 15 equal parcels to be divided as follows amongst my and my spouses surviving brothers and sisters and their children if they are not living.

The attorney who drafted the will, Robert Huffer, testified that the testator's intent was for the estate to go to Christine if she survived Carroll; otherwise, it would go to the siblings or, if they had died, their children.

The main asset of Carroll's estate was his undivided one-half interest in two parcels comprising about 200 acres of farmland in Hardin County. Carroll and Christine owned this real property as tenants in common.

Carroll passed away on July 29, 1993, survived by Christine. His will was admitted to probate on August 10, 1993, and Christine became the executor. On September 20, 1993, a report and inventory were filed which listed Christine as the sole beneficiary. On December 22, 1993, Huffer filed the final report on Christine's behalf, which again listed Christine as the sole beneficiary and asked that the estate be settled and closed. The estate was closed on January 3, 1994, and the assets, including the farmland, passed to Christine.

The siblings, nephews, and nieces of Carroll and Christine identified in article four did not receive formal notice of the probate proceedings for Carroll's will. Huffer explained that since they were not beneficiaries, he did not believe they needed to receive formal notice. However, these relatives were aware that Carroll had died and that probate proceedings had been opened. Several of the relatives later testified it was their understanding that Christine had received a life estate in the real property, and it would be theirs once Christine died.

As a practical matter, things would have worked out that way if Christine had not changed her will. Originally, Christine's will mirrored Carroll's, which meant that upon her death her property would have been divided among the siblings and their children because Carroll did not survive her. However, in 2006, Christine decided to change her will because of some family disputes. Thus, she essentially removed the siblings of Carroll and herself and their children as beneficiaries. She devised the residue of her estate, including the Hardin County real property, to charity.

Christine died on March 1, 2011. Her will was subsequently admitted to probate. A number of Christine's and Carroll's siblings and their children were surprised to learn at that time that they would not be receiving an interest in the real property. They claimed not to have seen Carroll's will until after Christine's death.[1]

Upon reviewing Carroll's will, these relatives brought an action on July 28, 2011, seeking to reopen Carroll's estate under Iowa Code section 633.489 (2011). They alleged that, under article four of Carroll's will, they should have received his undivided

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interest in the Hardin County real property.

The coexecutors of Christine's estate answered, denying that the prior 1994 distribution of the residual assets to Christine had been improper. The coexecutors of Christine's estate also alleged that the petition to reopen was untimely because of the time that had elapsed since Carroll's estate was closed. Subsequently, the coexecutors moved for summary judgment. In their motion, the coexecutors maintained that the relatives' petition to reopen was foreclosed by the five-year statute of limitations in section 633.488.

The district court held a hearing, and thereafter on July 5, 2012, denied the coexecutors' motion for summary judgment, reasoning that section 633.489 rather than section 633.488 governed the relatives' claim. Thus, the court found, " There is no time bar." The estate sought an interlocutory appeal. We ruled that an appeal as of right was available and transferred the case to the court of appeals.

In an opinion filed April 24, 2013, the court of appeals agreed with the district court that section 633.489 rather than section 633.488 applied. Hence, like the district court, the court of appeals found that the petition to reopen was not ...

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