David Lance Wilson struck out in his attempt to get the Iowa courts to hold that a provision in his late sister’s will leaving her entire estate to her long-time partner, Susan Woodall Fisher, was automatically revoked when the women allegedly split up nine years before the sister’s death. Affirming a summary judgment ruling by Crawford County District Judge Patrick H. Tott, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled on February 7 in Estate of Wilson; Wilson v. Fisher, 2018 WL 739248, 2018 Iowa App. LEXIS 155, that Iowa’s Probate Code, Sec. 633.271(1), would only revoke such a bequest if a marriage was dissolved in a court action, but there is no court record of any such proceeding.
Although the court’s ruling was an unexceptionable interpretation of the statute on its face, the factual setting of the case is a bit odd, to say the least. In order to attempt to invoke the revocation statute, David Wilson had to allege in his petition for declaratory judgment that the women had been legally married, a contention that is demonstrably untrue, but which was accepted as an “undisputed fact” for purposes of this case in the responsive pleading filed by the co-executors of the estate, Fisher and John C. Werden, and thus by the court as well, in its opinion by Judge Christopher L. McDonald.
According to Judge McDonald’s summary of the factual allegations, Leslie Wilson and Susan Fisher, same-sex partners, were married in Colorado “sometime before November 6, 1991,” on which date Leslie “executed her last will and testament. Under the will, Susan was to receive Leslie’s entire estate. Leslie’s brother, David, was listed as the successor beneficiary.” After Leslie passed away in March 2014, Susan filed an application in the Crawford County District Court for probate of a “foreign probated will.” District Judge Tott admitted the will into probate, and appointed Fisher and John C. Werden as “personal representatives” of the Iowa estate. “Susan subsequently filed an election to take under the will as Leslie’s surviving spouse. In June 2015, the personal representatives executed and recorded a court officer deed conveying an undivided one-half interest in real property owned by Leslie at the time of her death to Susan.”
David showed up six months later, filing his petition in the District Court alleging that Susan and Leslie had “dissolved” their marriage and that they “never cohabitated again and never remarried.” According to David, this dissolution, which involved terminating their relationship and dividing their assets, occurred in 2005. He was relying on Code Section 633.271(1), titled “Effect of divorce or dissolution,” which states, “If after making a will the testator is divorced or the testator’s marriage is dissolved, all provisions in the will in favor of the testator’s spouse … are revoked by the divorce or dissolution of marriage, unless the will provides otherwise.” Of course, this provision only applies if there was a marriage to begin with.
In a footnote, the court acknowledged that “same-sex marriages were not recognized in Colorado until October 2014. However, the parties stipulated in their pleadings that ‘Susan … and Leslie … were married in the state of Colorado’ prior to that time. We need not address the issue of whether the parties were legally married in Colorado because it is immaterial to our resolution of the case. If they were not legally married under Colorado law, then Iowa Code section 633.271(1)(2016) does not apply, and we would affirm. Under the analysis used in this opinion, which assumes without deciding they were legally married, we also affirm.”
David sought to persuade the court that because the provision in question states “divorce or dissolution of marriage,” the words “divorce” and “dissolution” must refer to two different things. A “divorce” is obviously a legal proceeding terminating a marriage. David argued that “dissolution” must, therefore, refer to an informal voluntary termination of a marriage by the parties without involving the courts. But the court of appeals panel unanimously rejected this argument.
Judge McDonald referred to Chapter 598 of the Iowa code which “expressly defines a ‘dissolution of marriage’ as ‘a termination of the marriage relationship,’” and more specifically to Section 598.1(2), in which, he asserted, “The legislature has expressly directed that the term ‘dissolution of a marriage’ ‘shall be synonymous with the term ‘divorce.’” Thus, the court concluded, “the terms ‘divorced’ and ‘dissolved’ as used in Section 633.271(1) carry the same meaning – the statute uses the terms in the context of marital relations, and the legislature has expressly defined those terms in the context of marital relations to be synonymous. In Iowa, a divorce or dissolution of a marriage may only be decreed by a court upon evidence ‘that there has been a breakdown of the marriage relationship to the extent that the legitimate objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonably likelihood that the marriage can be preserved.’”
As to the contention that parties can voluntarily “dissolve” a marriage without involving the courts, McDonald quoted a 1966 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, stating “We know of no such thing as a common law divorce.” McDonald found similar authority under Colorado law.
“It is undisputed that no decree has ever been entered dissolving Susan and Leslie’s marriage. The facts which David argues are in dispute are legally immaterial to the issue of whether Susan and Leslie’s marriage was dissolved.” Thus, the court affirmed Judge Tott’s ruling granting summary judgment in favor of the Estate and co-executors, denying David’s request for a declaratory judgment that the bequest to Susan was automatically revoked.
The court also denied David’s request to delay ruling on the co-executors’ motion for summary judgment until he could obtain discovery. Such discovery would be irrelevant to disposition of this motion, because David’s attempt to use the statute to get the bequest to Susan “revoked” must be rejected regardless of which version of the “facts” one accepts, so long as there is no record of any court decree “dissolving” the Fisher-Wilson “marriage.” And, of course, even if David is correct in asserting that the women split up and divided their assets in 2005, Leslie’s failure to revoke her will would leave the bequest in place in the absence of a valid marriage and a legal divorce.
Aaron W. Ahrendsen of Eich, Werden & Steger, P.C., Carroll, Iowa, represents the co-executors. Bradley J. Nelson of Norelius Nelson Law Firm, Denison, Iowa, represents David.