December 23, 2016
MARCIA E. ROLL, Appellant,
RUSSELL L. NEWHALL, Appellee.
from the Iowa District Court for Butler County, James M.
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.
D. Hanson and Melissa A. Schilling of Dickinson, Mackaman,
Tyler & Hagen, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.
C. Peglow and Bethany J. Currie of Peglow, O'Hare &
See, P.L.C., Marshalltown, for appellee.
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.
Background Facts and Proceedings.
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
will also named Russell and Marcia as executors to serve
2007, Russell was adopted as an adult by his paternal aunt,
Janice Anway, who wished to avoid Iowa's inheritance tax
on her estate.
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
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. 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
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.
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
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.
Standard of Review.
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)).
statute, the legal parent-child relationship between Marrian
and Russell, an adult, was terminated by the decree of
adoption establishing a new parent-child relationship between
Russell and Anway. Iowa Code § 600A.3 (2014)
("[T]ermination of parental rights between an adult
child and the child's parents may be accomplished by a
decree of adoption establishing a new parent-child
relationship."). Although the adoption clearly
terminated Russell's rights to inherit from his
biological mother under the law of intestate succession,
see id. § 633.223(1), Marrian died testate.
Thus, the question now before the court is whether the
adoption by Anway also extinguished Russell's right to
inherit under Marrian's will.
General Principles of Will Construction.
Iowa, the cardinal rule of will construction is that
"the intent of the testator is the polestar and must
prevail." In re Estate of Rogers, 473 N.W.2d
36, 39 (Iowa 1991). In determining the testator's intent,
we consider "(a) all of the language contained within
the four corners of the will, (b) the scheme of distribution,
(c) the surrounding circumstances at the time of the
will's execution[, ] and (d) the existing facts."
Id. The court considers the instrument as a whole
and tries to give each part meaning and effect. Id.
Although the effect of a will's language is determined at
the date of the testator's death, the intended meaning of
the language used is "construed as of the date of its
execution." Benz v. Paulson, 246 Iowa 1005,
1013, 70 N.W.2d 570, 574 (1955) (quoting In re Estate of
Warren, 211 Iowa 940, 948-49, 234 N.W. 835, 839 (1931),
abrogated in part on other grounds by In re Estate of
Kern, 274 N.W.2d 325, 327-28 (Iowa 1979)).
court applies an objective standard when determining the
testator's intent. Rogers, 473 N.W.2d at 39. We
consider "what the testator did say" and "not
what the testator meant to say." Id. The
testator's intended meaning of words controls and is
gathered from a reading of the instrument as a whole. In
re Estate of Roberts, 171 N.W.2d 269, 271-72 (Iowa
1969). The court will only resort to technical definitions or
cannons of construction if the testator's intended
meaning is ambiguous, uncertain, or conflicting. Id.
at 272; Rogers, 473 N.W.2d at 39; see also,
e.g., In re Estate of Nicolaus, 366 N.W.2d 562,
564-65 (Iowa 1985) (interpreting meaning of "issue"
used in a will consistently with probate code provisions
where intended meaning was uncertain). The court will not use
extrinsic evidence of the testator's subjective intent
"to vary, contradict[, ] or add to terms of the
will." Rogers, 473 N.W.2d at 39. Testators are
presumed to know the legal effect of language in their wills,
particularly when the wills are drafted by experienced
scriveners. Id. at 40.
court first looks to existing law to resolve questions of
ambiguity. See First Nat'l Bank of Dubuque v.
Mackey, 338 N.W.2d 361, 362 (Iowa 1983) ("[U]nless
the term 'legally adopted child' must be deemed to
include all adopted persons, [the testator's] intent
cannot be ascertained without resort to rules of
construction."). If existing law does not resolve the
ambiguity, the court turns to rules of construction for
guidance. Id. The court may also consider extrinsic
evidence in resolving the ambiguity. Rogers, 473
N.W.2d at 39.
Application of General Principles.
case, we find the relevant provision of Marrian's will is
ambiguous. The gift "to my children, RUSSELL L. NEWHALL
and MARCIA E. ROLL" is capable of multiple meanings
because it describes the beneficiaries as members of a class
and as individuals. The provision could therefore be
understood to mean Marrian intended a class gift or an
individual gift. If she intended a class gift, the naming of
Russell and Marcia could have constituted a list of the
members of the benefitted class at the time the will was
executed. If Marrian intended instead to make individual
gifts to Russell and Marcia, then the class reference (my
children) could be understood as merely a means of specifying
which "Russell L. Newhall" and which "Marcia
E. Roll" were beneficiaries.
contends the will evidences Marrian's intent to make a
class gift. We find no evidence in this record showing
Marrian actually considered before executing her will whether
her parent-child relationship with Russell would be legally
extant at the time of her death. Therefore, in resolving the
ambiguity we consider whether the relevant testamentary
provision is deemed an individual or class gift under
also asserts the mere naming of individuals within a class
does not override a class designation. She contends the gift
"to my children, RUSSELL L. NEWHALL and MARCIA E.
ROLL" is properly characterized as a class gift instead
of an individual gift. She posits that only the class-gift
characterization gives meaning to the word
"children" in the relevant testamentary provision.
Russell is precluded from inheriting, Marcia contends,
because the gift is to a class of Marrian's
"children, " and Russell was Marrian's
nephew-not her child-after his 2007 adoption by Anway.
responds that the law in Iowa is well-settled that a bequest
identifying its recipients by name and by class is an
individual gift. Marcia disagrees, contending this case is
one of first impression on the legal effect of an adult
beneficiary's adoption occurring after a will's
Iowa law, a class gift is defined as "a gift to two or
more persons who are not named and have one or more
characteristics in common by which they are indicated or
who answer to a general description."
Elliott v. Hiddleson, 303 N.W.2d 140, 142 (Iowa
1981) (emphasis added) (quoting In re Estate of
Kalouse, 282 N.W.2d 98, 101 (Iowa 1979)). An individual
gift designates beneficiaries by name. See In re
French's Estate, 242 Iowa 113, 123, 44 N.W.2d 706,
rule that a bequest or devise to persons who are designated
by name and by class is a gift to individuals and not a class
is well-established in our caselaw. In In re Estate of
Carter, we considered whether a bequest to three of the
testator's grandchildren was a gift to a class or to the
three grandchildren who were named in the testamentary
provision. 203 Iowa 603, 604-05, 213 N.W. 392, 394 (1927).
The determination was necessary because one of the named
grandchildren predeceased the testator and the court was
therefore presented with the question of whether that
grandchild's heirs or her two siblings would inherit a
share of the testator's estate. Id. at 604-05,
213 N.W. at 393- 94. In adopting the rule that a gift to
named individuals prevails over a class description of
beneficiaries, we reasoned:
It seems to be . . . well settled that, where the
beneficiaries are designated by name, it prima facie
indicates an intention to give to them only as individuals.
Where legatees are named as individuals and also described as
a class, and there is nothing more to show the testator's
intention, the construction is that the gift by name
constitutes a gift to the individual, to which class
description is added by way of identification. The court
attaches great importance to the designation of the devisees
severally by name, and a provision that they shall share the
gift in a fixed and definite proportion.
Id. at 605, 213 N.W. at 394. Accordingly, we
concluded the heirs of the grandchild who predeceased the
testator inherited the share of their deceased mother.
Friederichs v. Friederichs, a will left a remainder
interest in real estate "to [the testator's]
brothers and sisters" who were identified by name. 205
Iowa 505, 505-06, 218 N.W. 271, 272 (1928). Because two of
the testator's siblings named in the testamentary
provision had died before the will was executed, the court
was called upon to decide whether the testator intended an
individual or a class gift to his siblings. Id. The
district court concluded the devise to the siblings who
predeceased the testator lapsed in favor of those who
survived. Id. at 506, 218 N.W. at 272. Reversing the
judgment and decree on appeal, we concluded the testator-by
naming the beneficiaries as individuals-manifested a prima
facie intent for an individual gift and not a class gift.
Id. at 508, 218 N.W. at 273. Finding no contrary
testamentary intent in the will, we determined the devise to
the testator's deceased siblings "did not lapse, but
passed to [the deceased siblings'] heirs."
the challenge to Russell's status as a beneficiary under
Marrian's will does not turn on whether he survived the
testator, we find the reasoning of Carter and
Friederichs persuasive here. Read together,
Carter and Friederichs stand for the
proposition that a gift identifying a beneficiary both as an
individual and by class description is a valid gift to a
named individual in the absence of a testator's contrary
intent. In both cases, we upheld a gift to a beneficiary who
was named individually and described by class even though at
the time of the testator's death, the beneficiary was no
longer a member of the class for purposes of our rules of
inheritance. We concluded in each case that naming a
beneficiary as an individual and by class indicates a prima
facie intent to make an individual gift.
reaffirm that rule in this case. Russell was named as a
beneficiary in the will individually and as a member of a
class of "children." As such, he is the beneficiary
of an individual gift in the absence of Marrian's
contrary intent; his nonmembership in the class of
Marrian's children at the time of her death is not
dispositive. Accordingly, we conclude the testamentary gift
to Russell survived the adoption by Anway unless there is
sufficient evidence in the record to establish Marrian
intended for her beneficiaries to include only those of her
children that had not been adopted-out prior to the time of
appeal, Marcia makes three arguments supporting her
contention that Marrian intended to make a gift to only those
of her children who were her children as defined by the law
at the time of her death. First, Marcia contends
Marrian's intention to make a class gift is manifested by
her specific testamentary directive that "[a]ll
references to child or children shall include all children
born to or adopted by me after the date this Will is
executed." Put another way, Marcia advances the argument
that Marrian's inclusion of subsequently adopted-in
children and her failure to mention subsequently adopted-out
persons among the class of beneficiaries suggests a
testamentary intent to exclude those who might be adopted
disagree. Here, there is ample evidence within the four
corners of the will that Marrian intended to give to Russell
and Marcia as individuals. Notably, although Marrian did not
specify that adopted-out children are included within the
class of "children, " she also did not specify they
are not. She instead expressly defined the term
"children" as including Russell. In this context,
the definition of "children" is not necessarily
limited to the technical, legal definition of the term.
See Gilbert v. Wenzel, 247 Iowa 1279, 1282, 78
N.W.2d 793, 795 (1959) (noting that terms in a will are
"not always used in [their] strict legal sense but
[their] meaning in a particular instance is determined from
the will and surrounding circumstances").
in addition to providing that Russell and Marcia were to be
cobeneficiaries of the residue of the estate, the will
appointed Russell and Marcia as coexecutors. In appointing
the two as coexecutors, the will described them only as
individuals and not as members of a class. Viewed together,
the two provisions of the will naming Russell and Marcia-one
concerning the residue and the other concerning the
appointment of coexecutors-support the conclusion that the
testator's primary intent was to provide for her
biological children, Russell and Marcia, as individuals.
There is little reason to think Marrian would have
conditioned Russell's inheritance on his legal status as
her child at the date of her death while nominating him as a
coexecutor without regard to their legal relationship at the
time of her death. Thus, Marrian's expressed intent to
include as beneficiaries those who might later become her
children is not probative of her intent to exclude named
beneficiaries who were her biological offspring, but who
might later be adopted by someone else.
Marcia contends the district court's determination that
the gift to Russell was an individual gift renders the word
"children" meaningless in the will. Contrary to
Marcia's assertion, the class description does not become
meaningless if the gift is characterized as an individual
gift. As we said almost 100 years ago, when testamentary
gifts are directed to persons described by name and by class,
the class description serves a purpose. Carter, 203
Iowa at 605, 213 N.W. at 394; see also In re Murphy's
Estate, 106 P. 230, 233 (Cal. 1909). The designation of
"children" indicates-if there should be a
dispute-which Russell L. Newhall was the intended
beneficiary. Although there is no evidence Marrian
anticipated such a dispute about identity in this case, the
designation of "children" could be especially
important in families where people share the same name. For
example, if there were two people named Russell L. Newhall
that claimed the right to inherit under her will, one being
the testator's nephew and the other her son, there would
be no question about which Russell L. Newhall was the
intended beneficiary. Further, the word "children"
is not rendered meaningless when not understood as a
dispositive identifier in this case because the word
"children" can have legal, practical, and
biological meanings. In this case, the parties only agree
that Russell is no longer the testator's child in the
strictly legal sense of the word.
Marcia contends the district court's inclusion of
adopted-out persons within the class of "children"
eligible to inherit assigns a different meaning to
"children" than is set forth in the probate code.
See Iowa Code § 600A.3; id. §
633.223. Although she is correct that adopted-out individuals
are no longer children for purposes of intestate succession
under Iowa law, this is not a case of intestate succession.
conclusion in this case is consistent with the decisions of
other courts allowing adopted-away persons to take under the
terms of a biological relative's will. See,
e.g., In re Estate of Lippincott, 532 N.Y.S.2d
1021, 1023 (Sur. Ct. 1988) (determining an adopted-out child
who was specifically named as one of the testator's
grandchildren was entitled to take under a residuary gift to
the testator's grandchildren); Seeley v. Bedillion, 260 N.E.2d
639, 641-42 (Ohio Ct. Com. Pl. 1969) (holding an adopted-away
child was entitled to a share of a testamentary trust where
the child was specifically named in the instrument as a
member of an open class of children and a statute provided it
did not bar adopted-out individuals from taking under a
biological relative's will in which the adopted-out
individual is clearly identified); In re Schaeffer
Estate, 83 Pa. D. & C. 281, 281-83 (Orphans' Ct.
1952) (holding an adopted-out child was entitled to take
under a clause that left the residue of an estate "to my
children" and thereafter named them); see also
Christopher H. Hall, Annotation, Adoption as Precluding
Testamentary Gift Under Natural Relative's Will, 71
A.L.R.4th §§ 2, 8, at 378, 398-99 (1981).
raises two justifications for such a rule. First, she posits
the rule would discourage people from using the adoption code
to manipulate the rules of inheritance or to avoid paying
inheritance taxes. Second, she contends such an exception
would be consistent with Iowa's "strong public
policy" to sever "all legal relationships between
the adopted person and his biological relatives, including
the adopted person's right to inherit from his biological
Preventing manipulation of the rules of inheritance.
points out we have already determined there is no public
policy reason favoring adult adoptions that are
"primarily for the purpose of creating an heir."
Schaefer v. Merchs. Nat'l Bank of Cedar Rapids,
160 N.W.2d 318, 323 (Iowa 1968). She posits public policy
would therefore be advanced by a rule discouraging adult
adoptions as a mechanism for manipulating Iowa's
inheritance and tax rules.
and Russell agree that their paternal biological aunt adopted
Russell to avoid paying inheritance taxes, among other
reasons.Russell argues, however, that
no offense to public policy resulted from his inheritance
from Marrian. While he did not pay inheritance taxes on the
land he inherited from Anway, he has already paid inheritance
tax on the property inherited from Marrian.
court has the power to prevent a gift if it violates public
policy. Roberts, 171 N.W.2d at 271 ("[A]
testator has the legal right to make any distribution of . .
. property . . . not contrary to law or public policy."
(quoting In re Estate of Pottorff, 216 Iowa 1370,
1373, 250 N.W.463, 465 (1933)). If the testamentary gift from
Marrian to Russell violates public policy, the court has the
power to preclude Russell from receiving it. See
Schaefer, 160 N.W.2d at 323 (precluding a beneficiary
under a trust from receiving property as an heir because her
adoption into the family was for the purposes of manipulating
conclude the gift from Marrian to Russell does not subvert
Iowa's inheritance laws. The testamentary gift from
Marrian to Russell is a common one from a mother to her
biological child. The question of the tax treatment of that
gift is not before us.
General public policy.
also contends a public policy prohibiting adult adoptees from
inheriting under their biological parents' wills should
be recognized because it would be consistent with
other public policy of this state. The public policy she
urges is based on the proposition that all legal
relationships between an adopted-out individual and his or
her biological relatives are severed by adoption.
cites our decision in Teachout v. Forest City Community
School District, 584 N.W.2d 296 (Iowa 1998) as authority
for this policy-based argument. In Teachout, we
concluded a statute's forceful language evidenced a
public policy protecting at-will employees who report child
abuse. Id. at 300-01. Marcia contends sections
600A.3, 633.223, and 633.271 of the Iowa Code, together with
Iowa's Tax Code, reveal in a similarly forceful way a
public policy against inheritance by persons adopted-out as
adults from their biological families.
600A.3 of the Iowa Code extinguishes the parent-child
relationship between an adopted-out adult and that
individual's biological parents. Iowa Code § 600A.3.
Section 633.223 of the Iowa Code provides that with few
exceptions, "a lawful adoption extinguishes the right of
intestate succession" between the adoptee and his or her
biological parents. Id. § 633.223. Section
633.271 disinherits ex-spouses from taking under the terms of
their ex-spouse's will. Id. § 633.271.
Marcia cites the Iowa Tax Code generally for the proposition
that adopted-out individuals must pay inheritance taxes on
gifts from their biological parents while children whose
legal relationships were not terminated do not. Her argument
seems to be that public policy supports the legislature's
grant of a tax benefit in this context to persons who are
recognized under the law as a decedent's children, but
disfavors a decedent's biological children who have been
asserts that because sections 633.223 and 633.271 only apply
to intestate succession and dissolution of marriages
respectively, "the legislature kept open the possibility
that a person adopted out of the family could receive
[testamentary] gifts from a biological parent." He
argues that the court "should not create new law to
prevent a named beneficiary from receiving a gift,
devise or bequest under a Will simply because the legal
parent-child relationship was subsequently severed." We
noted above, testators in Iowa have "the legal right to
make any distribution of . . . property . . . not contrary to
law or public policy." Roberts, 171 N.W.2d at
271 (quoting Pottorff, 216 Iowa at 1373, 250 N.W. at
465). We find no basis for concluding Iowa's public
policy prevents testators from leaving property to their
biological children who have been adopted away, whether as a
child or an adult.
testamentary gift to Russell as a named beneficiary and as a
member of a class (the testator's children) did not fail
because of his adoption as an adult after the testator
executed her will. We therefore affirm the judgment.
The parties dispute whether Marrian had
notice and approved of Russell's adoption and whether
Russell maintained a relationship with her after the
adoption. While Russell claims he maintained a relationship
with his parents after the adoption as before, Marcia asserts
"[h]e terminated [the parent-child] relationship"
when he was adopted and "just divorced the family."
Although she took care of Marrian regularly after
Russell's adoption in 2007, Marcia was not aware that her
mother ever told anyone Russell was no longer her
The parties in this case have been
involved in other litigation as well. Today we also file our
decision in Newhall v. Roll, ___ N.W.2d ___ (Iowa
2016), a partition action filed by Russell against
Marcia claims Lippincott
should be distinguished because the testator in that case
made the gift long after the adoption and in knowledge of it,
and the gift met the conditions of a statute precluding gifts
to adopted-away individuals unless certain conditions were
met. Although those facts limit the persuasive force of
Lippincott, we conclude the case is still supportive
of Russell's position.
Marcia alleges in her brief on appeal
that Russell cut ties with Marrian after she executed her
will and after he received a substantial
"inheritance" from his parents through an inter
vivos gift. We do not credit these factual allegations
because they are not supported in the record on summary