On September 25, 2019, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the Matter of the Estate of Freeman Adams. Freeman Adams died in December 2016. Dorothy Ruth Fisher, the sister of the decedent, petitioned in probate to open an intestate estate for the decedent. Ms. Fisher acknowledged that the decedent executed a Last Will and Testament in 2011 and asserted that such document was invalid due to lack of testamentary capacity or the product of undue influence, or both. Two beneficiaries of the Estate objected to Ms. Fisher’s petition.
The facts of the case show that the decedent was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1958 and was prescribed antipsychotic and antianxiety drugs. The decedent continued to take antipsychotic medications for his entire life. Ms. Fisher took over as the decedent’s conservator in 1984 and continued to serve in such capacity until the decedent’s death. The decedent was able to drive and purchase groceries. Ms. Fisher did the decedent’s laundry, prepared his meals, cleaned his house, purchased his clothes and required him to bathe, and managed his financial affairs. The decedent owned an undivided one-half interest in 69 acres of farmland with his brother. The decedent also had a 7/9 share in the 150 acre family farm and also owned two houses.
In January 2011, after falling and breaking his arm, the decedent was admitted to a nursing home and tested 7 out of possible 11 points on cognitive ability which placed him in the range indicating moderately advanced impairment. However, six days later the decedent scored 13 out of 15 on a cognitive patterns test which was a successful score. In February 2011, testing indicated that the decedent’s intelligence was “average” and his long term memory was described as “intact” and he had mild issues concerning short term memory. It was noted that the decedent had chronic mental illness and it was controlled with medications. The decedent showed confusion from March 16 to March 21 of 2011. There were no indications of hallucinations or problematic confusion in the days immediately preceding the decedent’s discharge from the nursing home on March 31, 2011.
On September 22, 2011, the decedent took a handwritten note to his attorney requesting the preparation of a Will. In the note, the decedent indicated he wanted to leave the land in the “Adams” name to Nathan Adams and in regard to the 60-plus-acre farm, the decedent indicated he wanted give 48% to Edward Brannon and 2% to Howard Adams. In regard to his car, he indicated it should be given to Jayme Kleve. Upon questioning by the attorney, the decedent directed that the rest of his property should go to his sister, Ms. Freeman. The note did not specifically address the two houses owned by the decedent. The attorney testified that he had no indication on meeting with the decedent that he was not competent. The Last Will and Testament was prepared and was executed by the decedent on September 22, 2011. The attorney testified that the decedent was in the office for approximately 60 minutes to execute the Will and that he did not hear any statement or observe any behavior by the decedent which lead him to question the decedent’s competency. A clinical psychologist reviewed the decedent’s medical records and noted that initially people suffering from schizophrenia can not function in society, however, with proper medication they can do so. From the records and materials reviewed, the clinical psychologist found the decedent competent at the time the Will was executed.
The trial court determined that the decedent had the mental ability to make his Will in September 2011. As to undue influence, the trial court determined there was no evidence that anyone unduly influenced the decedent in making his Will or in designating his beneficiaries.
The Court of Appeals indicated that in order for the decedent to have had general testamentary capacity when he executed the Will, he must have known and understood (1) the nature of the instrument being executed; (2) the nature and extent of his property, (3) the natural objects of his bounty; and (4) the disposition he desired to make under his Last Will and Testament. The Court went on to find that although the decedent was diagnosed with significant mental health issues, the evidence supports the trial court’s finding that the decedent was legally competent when he executed his Will in 2011. The Court notes that the decedent made a list of what he wanted to have done in his Will, made an appointment with his attorney, and met with the attorney. The Court of Appeals further stated that although the list contained misspellings and did not include every item of his property, this is part of the process for which he was meeting with an attorney. The Court of Appeals also noted that the attorney believed the decedent to be competent and at the time the Will was executed, and the attorney and the witnesses affirmed that the decedent was of sound mind when he executed the Will. The Court also noted that the Will was similar to an earlier Will executed by the decedent in the year 2000.
The Court of Appeals went on to state that the mental health issues and unusual behaviors do not render the decedent incompetent to execute a Will. The Court noted that the decedent was treating his illness with medication and was able to live an active life. The Court of Appeals noted that the decedent was generous with his family and that some of his family received more than others which was the decedent’s choice.
Finally, in regard to the claim of undue influence, the Court of Appeals concluded that Ms. Fisher failed to offer any evidence, direct or circumstantial, that the decedent was influenced by anyone to procure a beneficiary status in his Will.