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In re Estate of Mrla

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 1, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF GEORGE MRLA, Deceased.
v.
ESTATE OF GEORGE MRLA, MARY GEORGIANNA HINER AND GEORGIE ANN QUINLAIN, AS EXECUTORS OF THE ESTATE OF GEORGE MRLA, deceased, AS TRUSTEES OF THE ANKA MRLA AND GEORGE MRLA FAMILY TRUST DATED AUGUST 14, 2015, AND INDIVIDUALLY, Defendants-Appellants, ROBERT MARION RICHARD MRLA, Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, Jeffrey A. Neary, Judge.

         Defendants appeal the district court decision finding there was good cause for plaintiff's failure to timely serve notice.

          Glenn A. Metcalf of Metcalf & Beardshear, Moville, for appellants.

          Michael W. Ellwanger of Rawlings, Ellwanger, Mohrhauser, Nelson & Roe, L.L.P., Sioux City, for appellee.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          BOWER, JUDGE.

         Defendants appeal the district court decision finding there was good cause for the failure of Robert Mrla to timely serve notice of his petition to set aside a will and petition for breach of contract to make a will. We find Robert was required to serve notice to the defendants. The defendants' petition for declaratory judgment did not waive their claims regarding untimely service of process. The district court erred in finding Robert showed good cause for the delay in service. We reverse the decision of the district court denying the motion to dismiss and remand.

         I. Background Facts & Proceedings

         George Mrla (George) died on April 26, 2017. Under his will, all of George's property went to The Anka Mrla and George Mrla Family Trust. Mary Hiner and Georgie Quinlain were named as the trustees. The trust provided on George's death specific parcels of land would be distributed to his children-George S. Mrla (George S.), John Mrla, David Mrla, Robert, Georgie, Mary, Joseph Mrla, Rosemary Chicoine, Jennifer Newman, and George G. Mrla (George G.).[1] On May 3, 2017, Mary filed a petition for probate of the will without present administration, and the district court granted the petition. The attorney for Mary and Georgie as trustees was Glenn Metcalf.

         On September 18, 2017, Robert filed a petition to set aside the will, claiming George was mentally incompetent to make a will and the will was the result of undue influence. In addition, Robert filed a petition for breach of contract to make a will, asserting he had provided farm services to George without pay based on statements he would receive an eighty-acre farm in George's will. The trust, the estate, and Robert's siblings were named as defendants. Robert's attorney for the claims was Michael Ellwanger.[2]

         On September 21, 2017, Ellwanger sent a letter to Metcalf, asking if he represented all of the fiduciaries and other parties in the litigation. On October 5, Ellwanger sent Metcalf an email, again asking if he was representing the defendants. Ellwanger stated, "Inasmuch as the claims were filed in the probate, I don't think that I need to personally serve anyone, but would like to visit with you about this." Metcalf responded he was only representing Mary and Georgie as trustees but would try to see what the other family members wanted to do.

         On October 25, in a separate proceeding, Mary and Georgie, as trustees, filed a petition for declaratory judgment, stating they had not been served notice. They sought a ruling Robert's filings were barred by the statute of limitations regarding trusts. On inquiry from Metcalf, Ellwanger stated he could accept service for Robert on the petition for declaratory judgment. In fact, however, Robert was personally served with notice of the petition for declaratory judgment.

         Under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.302(5), service of notice should be made within ninety days after filing a petition. On December 18, the last day for timely service for Robert's petitions,[3] Ellwanger's firm emailed Metcalf stating, "We assume acceptance of service is reciprocal. Will you accept service on behalf of the Estate, Trust, and other defendants?" Metcalf replied, "[N]o I have not been authorized to accept service." Ellwanger sent the original notices and petitions to be served on the defendants to the sheriff's office late on December 18.

         After the ninety days were past, on December 19, Ellwanger emailed Metcalf, "[W]e are preparing to serve all these people. Are you going to represent them? If so it seem[s] a waste of time and money to run around the countryside serving people." Metcalf responded he was only representing Mary and Georgie in their roles as trustees and was not authorized to accept service. Service of notice began on December 20.[4]

         An amended petition for declaratory relief was filed on December 22 by Mary and Georgie as trustees. It stated Robert had not taken action for more than ninety days "to serve the trustees or any Defendant with copies of the Claim or either Petition." Mary and Georgie asked the court to dismiss Robert's petitions. On December 27, Mary and Georgie were appointed executors in the probate proceedings. Metcalf was designated as the attorney for the estate.

         On January 3, 2018, Mary and Georgie, as executors and trustees, filed a motion to dismiss Robert's claims based on his failure to serve notice within ninety days, as required by rule 1.302(5). Motions to dismiss were also filed by John, David, Joseph, Rosemary, Jennifer, George G., and Mary in her individual capacity.[5]

         On January 16, Robert filed a motion to transfer Mary and Georgie's petition for declaratory judgment to the probate proceedings. Mary and Georgie did not resist the motion, ...


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