Lemke's Estate, In re

Decision Date27 March 1974
Docket NumberNo. 55380,55380
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE of O. W. LEMKE, Deceased.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Dickinson, Throckmorton, Parker, Mannheimer & Raife, Des Moines, for appellant.

Stillman & Goranson, Clear Lake, for appellee.

Heard before MOORE, C.J., and RAWLINGS, REES, HARRIS, and McCORMICK, JJ.

RAWLINGS, Justice.

Objector, Wayne R. Lemke (Wayne), appeals from adjudication in probate on reopened estate final report. Executor cross-appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part.

April 14, 1954, O. W. Lemke (testator), executed his last will and testament.

By paragraph 2 thereof a life estate in a described 170 acre farm was bequeathed to his wife Mary Ann Lemke (life tenant).

It also provides:

'Upon the death of my wife, Mary Ann Lemke, I hereby direct that my son, Clarence E. Lemke, shall have the right and privilege to acquire the real property above described for an amount of $175.00 per acre, and if he elects to acquire said real property by payment of the sum of $175.00 per acre to the Executors of my estate hereinafter named, I direct that he shall file his written election to do so in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court of the County in which my estate is probated, within one year after the date of the death of my wife, Mary Ann Lemke, and that he shall also within such one year period pay the amount of $175.00 per acre for the above described real property to the Executors of my estate, to be distributed as hereafter set forth.

'In the event my son, Clarence E. Lemke, does not elect to acquire the real property above described within one year after the date of the death of my wife, Mary Ann Lemke, then I give and devise the real property hereinbefore described to my sons, Wayne R. Lemke and Clarence E. Lemke, to be their property absolutely in equal shares.'

Then paragraph 4 states in substance, Clarence shall have the same option right should the life tenant predecease testator or in event she and testator die simultaneously. The aforesaid equal bequest to Wayne and Clarence is then repeated in event the latter should fail to exercise the above noted option.

Also, paragraph 5 says, in essence, if the option be exercised by Clarence the proceeds shall be divided equally between the two named sons.

November 4, 1957, testator died. His will was admitted to probate and the estate subsequently closed.

June 9, 1963, Clarence died leaving all property to his spouse Pearl M. M. Lemke (Pearl).

March 21, 1970, the life tenant died.

October 5, a petition for reopening of testator's estate was filed by Pearl so she, as Clarence's sole distributee, could exercise the aforesaid option.

October 5, a court order was entered (1) fixing October 19, 1970, as time for hearing on Pearl's petition, and (2) directing notice thereof be sent at least ten days prior thereto, certified mail, to Wayne at his last known designated address in Houston, Texas.

The same day such notice, with copy of petition, was so forwarded. Wayne, however, had moved to Bellaire, Texas and did not receive the mailed hearing notice until October 10, 1970.

October 19, absent appearance by Wayne, trial court ordered testator's estate reopened and appointed G. W. Templeton successor executor.

November 20, executor made application for leave to convey real estate. Simultaneously trial court entered an order fixing December 7 as time for hearing on this application and directing ten day notice, as above, be given Wayne.

November 24, the last mentioned notice was so mailed.

November 28, it was received by Wayne in Texas.

December 7, after hearing on the above mentioned application for leave to convey, trial court approved a conveyance of the farm to Pearl.

Thereafter request was made for approval of executor's final report on the reopened estate proceedings.

Subsequently, Wayne appeared and filed objection to said final report on these grounds: (1) notices given him were inadequate and constitutionally deficient, and (2) the purchase option accorded Clarence by testator's will was a personal right which did not pass to Pearl.

May 18, 1971, hearing was held on objection by Wayne to which executor had filed resistance.

August 30, 1971, trial court found, in material part, (1) the notices given adequately apprised Wayne as to demands made adverse to him but (2) were insufficient to meet procedural due process requirements, therefore, (3) Wayne had full right to contest the estate reopening and order of conveyance to Pearl in course of executor's final report application hearing, (4) the estate was properly reopened, and (5) the aforesaid option was not personal, therefore passed as a property right to Pearl. Thereupon Wayne's objection was overruled and executor's final report approved.

Appellant, Wayne, contends trial court erred in holding the testamentary purchase option constituted a property right which passed to Clarence's widow.

Cross-appellant, executor, takes issue with the above holding to the effect notices given Wayne did not meet procedural due process standards.

These assignments will be entertained in reverse order.

I. The matter from which this appeal stems was heard and determined in equity and does not fall within any exception set forth in Code § 633.33. Therefore our review is de novo. See In re Estate of Cory, 184 N.W.2d 693, 695--696 (Iowa 1971); In re Estate of Thompson, 164 N.W.2d 141, 146 (Iowa 1969); In re Will of Faber, 259 Iowa 1, 3, 141 N.W.2d 554 (1966); Iowa R.Civ.P. 334.

Weight is accorded trial court's findings but we are not bound by them. See In re Estate of Thompson, Supra; Iowa R.Civ.P. 344(f)(7).

II. In resisting Wayne's objections to the reopened estate final report, executor contends Wayne's failure to appear in response to the first two mailed notices precluded him from voicing such objections.

Reduced to bare essentials the question resultantly posed is whether the attempted notifications by mail sufficed, under the circumstances, to meet procedural due process requirements.

These court ordered notices were unquestionably authorized by Code §§ 633.40(1) and 633.489. But those statutory enactments understandably specify no length of time for giving of notice. That does not mean, however, the notifications specified by court order in the matter at hand were ipso facto proper or adequate. Actually, all such action related notifications must meet constitutional muster, i.e., procedural due process.

And as here involved that precept mandates notice and opportunity for hearing appropriate to the nature of the case. See Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 313--314, 70 S.Ct. 652, 656--657, 94 L.Ed. 865 (1950). See also Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 266--269, 90 S.Ct. 1011, 1020--1021, 25 L.Ed.2d 287 (1970); Eves v. Iowa Employment Security Commission, 211 N.W.2d 324, 326 (Iowa 1973); Stubbs v. Hammond, 257 Iowa 1071, 1075--1076, 135 N.W.2d 540 (1965); 16 Am.Jur.2d, Constitutional Law, §§ 548--549; 16A C.J.S. Constitutional Law § 619.

Unquestionably any such notice must be 'reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action And afford them an opportunity to present their objections.' (Emphasis supplied). Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., Supra.

Significantly, fulfillment of these due process requirements depends upon the facts and circumstances in each case. As stated in Mullane:

'(I)f with due regard for the practicalities and peculiarities of the case these conditions are reasonably met the constitutional requirements are satisfied. 'The criterion is not the possibility of conceivable injury, but the just and reasonable character of the requirements, having reference to the subject with which the statute deals.'' 339 U.S. at 314--315, 70 S.Ct. at 657.

See also Eves v. Iowa Employment Security Commission, Supra.

Bearing in mind the statutes under which notices were instantly given to Wayne are not challenged by him and that he, in both instances, received actual notice of the hearings, our review is limited to a determination as to whether, under all the circumstances, Wayne was afforded reasonable opportunity to present his objections.

In that regard the record reveals this factual background: (1) Wayne and his wife, Pearl and her daughter and son-in-law, discussed the controverted option after death of the life tenant; (2) Pearl then revealed her desire to exercise the option but Wayne and his spouse voiced objection thereto; and (3) August 13, 1970, Pearl's attorneys wrote Wayne advising him to the effect Pearl planned to exercise the option, detailed results as to Wayne, informed him they were considering opening testator's estate for such purpose, and suggested he retain counsel.

It is to us apparent, however, (1) knowledge of possible action on Pearl's part was not 'notice' to Wayne in any legal sense; (2) he had changed his place of abode and was under no duty to so advise anyone presently involved; (3) it was well known to all concerned Wayne resided in Texas and by the aforesaid notices he was called upon to engage counsel, determine appropriate action, and transmit his decision with all related information to an Iowa attorney in time to permit preparation and filing of proper motions or pleadings, all within a restricted period. Under existing circumstances Wayne was not afforded reasonable opportunity for a fair hearing on Pearl's application to reopen the estate, or on executor's application for leave to convey. See Eves v. Iowa Employment Security Commission, Supra; 16 Am.Jur.2d, Constitutional Law, §§ 560, 562, 569; 16A C.J.S. Constitutional Law § 569(2)(3)(4).

Trial court so found and accordingly held Wayne was not precluded from relitigating and seeking an adjudication anew regarding Pearl's right to exercise the option here involved. We find no cause to disagree with that holding and affirm on executor's cross-appeal.


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