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In re Guardianship and Conservatorship of Raska

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 25, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP AND CONSERVATORSHIP OF MABELLE L. RASKA, MABELLE L. RASKA, Ward-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Hamilton County, Timothy J. Finn, Judge.

         Mabelle Raska, through her guardian ad litem, appeals a district court order approving a gift from conservatorship funds.

          Joseline L. Greenley, Webster City, guardian ad litem for appellant.

          Steven W. Hendricks of Kersten Brownlee Hendricks PLLC, Fort Dodge, for appellee.

          Heard by Tabor, P.J., and Mullins and May, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         Mabelle Raska, through her guardian ad litem, appeals a district court order approving a gift from conservatorship funds to the Wilson Brewer Park Foundation (Foundation). The guardian ad litem argues the district court erred by failing to review Mabelle's will to determine her testamentary intent. The guardian ad litem further argues the gift was given without good cause to an organization that was neither a named testamentary beneficiary nor a beneficiary of lifetime donations and was not structured to maximize income-tax benefits.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         Mabelle Raska and her late husband, Verner Raska, lived in Webster City for several years, across the street from Wilson Brewer Park. At some point, Mabelle moved to a nursing and rehabilitation center. In February 2017, Mabelle's nephew, Floyd Poole, petitioned for appointment as guardian and conservator of Mabelle. The petition was involuntary, based on Mabelle's incapacity to make decisions regarding her finances. A guardian ad litem was appointed to represent Mabelle in the proceedings. The district court granted the petition in March 2017. The initial report filed in March 2017 valued Mabelle's total assets at $2, 906, 365.[1]The first annual report filed in March 2018 stated the value of Mabelle's assets rose to $3, 287, 958.45. Among funds received during the reporting period were Social Security in the amount of $5230, nursing home insurance benefits of $41, 623, and benefits from another insurance policy of $3989. Her nursing home expense was $51, 673 and "Taxes (Estimates for State & Federal & Tax Prep.)" totaled $1370.

         The March 2018 annual report was followed by an application to the court to approve a $100, 000 gift to the Foundation from conservatorship funds. The application alleged the gift was a tribute to Mabelle and Verner personally and would result in an income-tax benefit. In her response to the application, Mabelle's guardian ad litem raised several concerns, including, among other things, a lack of congruence with Mabelle's testamentary intent, diminished interests to residuary beneficiaries of Mabelle's estate, lack of sufficient evidence regarding the alleged income-tax benefit, and the need for investigation of Mabelle's history of charitable contributions. Furthermore, the guardian ad litem noted the Foundation was led by Poole's attorney in the guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Ultimately, the guardian ad litem requested that the district court review Mabelle's will to determine whether the gift to the Foundation was within her testamentary intent.

         In June 2018, Poole applied for and was appointed new counsel for the limited purpose of representing him in relation to the application to make the Foundation gift. Poole continued to request the gift, stating he believed there to be sufficient income in conservatorship funds and his belief Mabelle would want to make the gift but never had the opportunity to do so.[2] During a June 11, 2018 hearing, Poole stated his belief was based on personal knowledge that the park's maintenance was important to Mabelle because of statements she and Verner made indicating they "hoped it would be taken care of and not just let sit there and go to pieces." Poole also noted both Mabelle and Verner "commented several times when other improvements were made to the park and that they hoped it would continue." Poole stated the income-tax benefit would be spread over two years, and that he did not intend to make any other charitable donations from the conservatorship funds. Poole also testified Mabelle made donations to her church consistently in the past, but as conservator he had made none. In 2017, the conservatorship made only two charitable contributions: $50 to United Service Organizations (USO) and $10 to Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Poole's brief in support of the application noted the Foundation was not a testamentary beneficiary named by Mabelle but argued there were sufficient funds for the gift, good cause supported the gift, Mabelle never had an opportunity to donate herself, and the gift would result in an income-tax benefit.

         The district court granted the application for a $100, 000 gift to the Foundation. In approving the gift, the court stated only "that the Iowa Code and case law cited" supported the gift and made no further findings of fact. The guardian ad litem for Mabelle moved the court to expand the order, specifically requesting a more thorough discussion of factual determinations and to structure the gift to maximize any income-tax benefit. The motion was denied. This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Iowa Code specifically designates "[a]ctions to set aside or contest wills, for the involuntary appointment of guardians or conservators, and for the establishment of contested claims" as probate actions triable at law. Iowa Code § 633.33 (2018). All other probate actions are equitable. Id. Appeal from an order approving a gift from conservatorship funds is not within the designated at-law actions and is therefore tried in equity. Id. Accordingly, our review is de novo. In re Guardianship & Conservatorship of Jordan, 616 N.W.2d 553, 557–58 (Iowa 2000). Appellate courts are not bound by legal conclusions or ...


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