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In re Guardianship and Conservatorship of Turner

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 21, 2019


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Johnson County, Lars G. Anderson, Judge.

         A ward's niece and nephew appeal the denial of their applications for guardianship and conservatorship and the appointment of the ward's long-time friends as guardians.

          Magdalena Reese of Cooper, Goedicke, Reimer & Reese, P.C., West Des Moines, (until withdrawal) and Sarah E. Dewein of Cunningham & Kelso, P.L.L.C., Urbandale, for appellant Timothy Lewis.

          Thomas E. Maxwell of Leff Law Firm, L.L.P., Iowa City, for appellant Kimberly Hawkins.

          Timothy J. Krumm and Stephanie A. Worrell of Meardon, Sueppel & Downer, P.L.C., Iowa City, for appellees.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Tabor and May, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         Jean Turner is an extraordinary woman. Her family and friends agree on that point. Witnesses described the retired school teacher as intelligent, strong, sophisticated, and classy, but also as stern, demanding, stubborn, and private. Now eighty-five years old, Jean has dementia. And her extended family and longtime friends disagree on who should assist with her affairs.

         In 2013, Jean granted durable medical power of attorney (POA) to her friends, Marian and David Coleman, and general POA for financial matters to Hills Bank and Trust Company. But Jean's niece and nephew believe she lacked the capacity to execute those powers of attorney and family is better suited to tend to her needs and protect her assets. Disagreeing with the niece and nephew, the district court appointed the Colemans as Jean's guardians. The court also declined to appoint a conservator. Finding no error in those rulings, we affirm.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Maggie Jean Lewis Turner was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, where most of her extended family still lives. In 1972, Jean and her husband, Darwin, moved to Iowa where Darwin was an English professor and head of the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Iowa. Jean worked as an elementary school teacher and retired in 1998. Jean met Marian Coleman when they both taught in the Iowa City Community School District. As teachers and "university wives," they grew close and remained life-long friends. Jean also enjoyed a warm friendship with David Coleman. The two often talked about gardening and politics.

         Nearly every year after she left North Carolina, Jean made summer and Christmas sojourns back to Greensboro. Her nephew, Timothy Lewis, and her niece, Kimberly Hawkins, recalled those visits as a memorable part of their childhoods. They enjoyed spending time with their aunt. The family believed Jean intended to move back to North Carolina permanently. But Jean made her last trip to Greensboro in 2009. Timothy and Kimberly testified they maintained contact with Jean over the phone and by writing cards and letters. Kimberly still lives in a suburb of Greensboro. Timothy has lived in Baltimore for the last ten years.

         After Darwin's death in 1991, Jean stayed in her own home but increasingly relied on the Colemans for help in her daily activities. She also relied on her son, Frenise Rachon Fulton (who went by the nickname Scrappy). But Scrappy did not live in Iowa and generally allowed the Colemans to handle Jean's affairs.

         Starting in 2009, family members noticed changes in Jean. She spoke with long pauses, repeated herself, carried on "bizarre" and rambling conversations, and had memory lapses. She had always been slim and petite but seemed to have lost weight. Although family members discussed Jean's decline and tried to get in touch with Scrappy, they took no additional steps to address their concerns until years later.

         In summer 2011, Jean met with attorney Matthew Hayek to discuss financial matters she had neglected, including unpaid taxes. Hayek knew Jean "had an array of financial holdings . . . and was in need of some help consolidating them and handling them." Hayek connected Jean with an accountant and tax preparer, as well as elder services. With Hayek's assistance, Jean executed documents granting powers of attorney to Scrappy and Clarence Skog, a close friend-who provided her financial services. Hayek also helped Jean execute a living will and granted durable medical power of attorney to Scrappy.

         Jean's situation shifted two years later when Scrappy died. Jean's sister, Frances, and niece Kimberly were the only members of Jean's family to attend the funeral in October 2013. When they arrived in Iowa City, Frances and Kimberly felt Jean "did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation." Uncharacteristically, Jean's hair and clothing were dirty, and her house was unsanitary and in disarray with unopened mail piled in boxes. The family tried to discuss the situation with the Colemans. But the Colemans said the power of attorney was handling her care. The family could not determine who held Jean's powers of attorney.

         A month after Scrappy's funeral, Jean once again met with Hayek to discuss her estate planning. Hayek helped her execute a will; a durable medical power of attorney, designating the Colemans; and a durable general power of attorney, designating Hills Bank. When Jean met with Hayek on November 14 to sign the documents, the attorney was aware of her declining cognitive abilities and asked his staff serving as witnesses to be "very watchful" for potential capacity issues. Seeing none, Hayek went through the documents with Jean that he drafted based on her consistent instructions and helped her execute them.

         In 2014, Jean received a diagnosis of dementia. When she was no longer able to live in her own home, the Colemans helped her move into a retirement community with a memory-care unit. The facility's director described Jean as an active member of the community-doing floral arrangements, baking ...

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