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In re Estate of Adams

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 25, 2019


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Fayette County, Margaret L. Lingreen, Judge.

         The estate of Dorothy Ruth Fisher appeals the ruling of the probate court ultimately finding her brother's will was valid.

          Nathan J. Schroeder and David J. Dutton of Dutton, Braun, Staack & Hellman, P.L.C., Waterloo, for appellant.

          Patrick B. Dillon of Dillon Law, P.C., Sumner, for appellees Scott Adams and Nathan Adams.

          John W. Hofmeyer III of Hofmeyer & Hanson, P.C., Fayette, for appellee Edward Brannon.

          Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Bower, JJ.

          DOYLE, JUDGE.

         The estate[1] of Dorothy Ruth Fisher appeals the probate court's (1) dismissal of her petition in probate seeking to open an intestate estate for her brother Freeman Adams, (2) sustaining the petition of a beneficiary of Freeman's 2011 will to probate Freeman's will, and (3) sustaining the motion for a directed verdict on a claim of undue influence. Upon our review, we affirm the court's ruling in all respects.

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         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Freeman Adams passed away in December 2016. Dorothy Ruth Fisher (nee Adams)-Freeman's sister and former conservator-petitioned in probate seeking to open an intestate estate for Freeman.[2] Dorothy Ruth acknowledged in her petition that she had found in Freeman's possessions a 2011 document declaring to be Freeman's "Last Will and Testament." Dorothy Ruth asserted the document was "invalid due to lack of testamentary capacity, " or "the product of undue influence or both . . . and should not be admitted to probate." Dorothy Ruth requested she be appointed administrator of the estate.

         The beneficiaries of Freeman's will were notified Dorothy Ruth had filed the probate petition. Two beneficiaries, Scott Adams and his son Nathan Adams, objected to Dorothy Ruth's petition, arguing Freeman's will was valid. They asked the court to deny Dorothy Ruth's petition for intestate administration of the estate and requested the will be admitted to probate and Scott be appointed executor. Scott also petitioned for probate of will and appointment of executor, again requesting he be appointed executor of the estate. At some point, beneficiary Edward Brannon joined the action as an interested party. Dorothy Ruth objected to Scott and Nathan's request.

         The dueling petitions over the administration of the estate came on for a bench trial in May 2018. After the cases in chief, Brannon moved for a directed verdict as to any claim of undue influence on his part.

         The probate court made these findings of fact essentially not in dispute:

A. Freeman's Life and History.
1. Freeman Adams was born June 16, 1926, to John and Dorothy Adams. Freeman had two siblings, Howard and Dorothy Ruth . . . .
Freeman grew up on the family farm in Waucoma, Iowa. Freeman was drafted into the army and served in Korea. He was discharged in 1952. Upon discharge, Freeman returned to live with his parents.
2. Following his return from the army, Freeman began showing signs of mental illness. He was admitted to the Mental Health Institute [(MHI)] in Independence, Iowa on or about October 15, 1956. He stayed at MHI for approximately one year.
On April 28, 1958, Freeman was readmitted to MHI. He was later transferred to the Veterans Administration [(VA)] Hospital in Knoxville, Iowa. There, Freeman was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Records indicate Freeman had delusions of persecution; that food/air were being poisoned; that he had syphilis; that he would give people syphilis if he shook their hand. Freeman was treated with Mellaril, an antipsychotic, and Stelazine, an antianxiety and antipsychotic drug.
At various times, Freeman was hospitalized at the VA Hospital in Knoxville. When released from the hospital, he resided with his parents in Waucoma. Following the passing of Freeman's father, Freeman continued to live with his mother at the family homestead. He and his mother later moved to a house in Waucoma.
3. In 1960, Freeman's mother . . . was appointed his guardian. [She] served as Freeman's guardian from approximately 1960 to 1984. She managed all of Freeman's financial affairs, including applying for disability and VA benefits, paying Freeman's bills and providing for his daily needs, including providing a place to live. Freeman did receive a monthly allowance for groceries and other expenses. However, all other financial affairs were managed by the guardian. Although released from the Knoxville VA Hospital in 1966, Freeman continued to suffer from mental disability. He was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia with severe social and industrial impairment. Freeman continued to take antipsychotic medications for the rest of his life.
4.The evidence indicates Freeman had certain idiosyncrasies, including refusing to flush the toilet; picking up discarded cigarettes to smoke; refusing to cut his fingernails, regularly bathe or have a haircut more than twice a year; refusing to answer the telephone at times; refusing to use certain appliances; saving plastic twisters; irregular sleep habits; sleeping on a cot, rather than a bed; and keeping the house dimly lit.
5. Freeman was never employed. His income came from farm rent, VA pension, disability insurance, annuities and other investments set up by his mother, along with Freeman's sister Dorothy Ruth . . . .
6. Freeman's sister . . . took over as conservator in 1984, due to [their mother's] failing health. [Their mother] died in 1991. Dorothy Ruth . . . served as conservator from 1984 to the date of Freeman's death in 2016.
Following the death of [their mother], Freeman lived in [his mother's house] in Waucoma. Although Freeman was able to drive his car and purchase groceries, the evidence indicates he did not take care of all of his daily personal needs. For instance, his sister, Dorothy Ruth, would do his laundry, prepare meals, clean the house, purchase clothes, and require him to bathe.
Dorothy Ruth managed Freeman's financial affairs. She was responsible for paying for home repairs, paying utilities, managing checking and savings accounts, paying individuals who did work at Freeman's residence, paying doctor bills, obtaining and paying car insurance, paying car and property insurance, purchasing clothes for Freeman, managing Freeman's investments and annuities, arranging for food and for medical care, and preparation of his tax returns.
[Melanie Mae Fisher, Dorothy Ruth's daughter, served with her mother as a co-conservator of Freeman.]
7. In 2008, Dorothy Ruth purchased a new home for Freeman in Waucoma, Iowa. This is where Freeman lived until his death. ...

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