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Roll v. Newhall

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 23, 2016

MARCIA E. ROLL, Appellant,

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Butler County, James M. Drew, Judge.

         A will beneficiary appeals a district court ruling declaring that another beneficiary's adoption out of his biological family after the execution of a will did not preclude him from inheriting under a provision of the will that identified him by name and class designation. AFFIRMED.

          Thomas D. Hanson and Melissa A. Schilling of Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler & Hagen, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Paul C. Peglow and Bethany J. Currie of Peglow, O'Hare & See, P.L.C., Marshalltown, for appellee.

          HECHT, Justice.

         A testator executed a last will and testament devising property to her two adult children-a son and a daughter. After the will was executed but before the testator's death, the son was adopted by a paternal aunt. The testator's daughter filed this action after the testator's death seeking a declaratory judgment establishing that the adoption terminated her sibling's ability to inherit under the will. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court concluded the son's adoption out of his biological family did not preclude him from taking under his biological mother's will, which identified him as a beneficiary both by name and by membership in a class. We affirm.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Russell Newhall and Marcia Roll are the biological adult children of Marrian Newhall. Marrian executed her last will and testament in 2006. Article II of the will provided,

In the event my husband does not survive me, all the rest, residue and remainder of my property I give to my children, RUSSELL L. NEWHALL and MARCIA E. ROLL, share and share alike. All references to child or children shall include all children born to or adopted by me after the date this Will is executed.

         The will also named Russell and Marcia as executors to serve without bond.

         In 2007, Russell was adopted as an adult by his paternal aunt, Janice Anway, who wished to avoid Iowa's inheritance tax on her estate.

         Marrian passed away in August 2014. She was not survived by a spouse. As a consequence of the adoption, Russell was Marrian's nephew under the law and her biological son at the time of her death.[1]

         Marcia, the executor and a beneficiary of the residue of Marrian's estate, filed this action seeking a declaration that Russell's adoption out of the family precluded him from inheriting under the provisions of Marrian's will.[2] Marcia's petition alleged entitlement to such relief because the will clearly expressed Marrian's intent to leave the property to her "children, " and as a consequence of the adoption Russell was not Marrian's child under the applicable law at the time of her death. Russell filed an answer asserting his adoption by Anway did not change his relationship with his parents and that Marrian's intent for him to inherit and serve as coexecutor is clearly expressed in her last will and testament.

         In August 2015, Marcia and Russell filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment, concluding Russell could inherit under the terms of Marrian's will despite the adoption because he was clearly named as an individual under the will's provisions and no statute barred him from recovering.

         On appeal, Marcia makes two arguments. First, she contends the district court made an error of law in its determination of the testator's intent. In particular, Marcia asserts the district court misunderstood relevant caselaw and did not take into account the will's language or the facts and circumstances surrounding its execution. Second, Marcia asserts that even if the terms of the will would otherwise permit Russell to inherit despite his adoption by Anway, we should hold-based on public policy-that a beneficiary's right to inherit under a biological relative's will is extinguished when the beneficiary severs his or her legal relationship with that relative through a voluntary adult adoption.

         Russell contends his status as a beneficiary under Marrian's will persists even after his adoption because he is a named beneficiary-not merely an unidentified member of a familial class consisting of the testator's children.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We review summary judgment rulings for correction of errors at law. Baker v. City of Iowa City, 867 N.W.2d 44, 51 (Iowa 2015). "On review, 'we examine the record before the district court to determine whether any material fact is in dispute, and if not, whether the district court correctly applied the law.' " J.A.H. ex rel. R.M.H. v. Wadle & Assocs., P.C., 589 N.W.2d 256, 258 (Iowa 1999) (quoting Shriver v. City of Okoboji, 567 N.W.2d 397, 400 (Iowa 1997)). "We . . . view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and will grant that party all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record." Estate of Gray ex rel. Gray v. Baldi, 880 N.W.2d 451, 455 (Iowa 2016) (quoting Cawthorn v. Catholic Health Initiatives Iowa Corp., 806 N.W.2d 282, 286 (Iowa 2011)).

         III. ...

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