Miguet's Estate, In re, 54271

Citation185 N.W.2d 508
Decision Date11 March 1971
Docket NumberNo. 54271,54271
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE of Emma L. MIGUET, Deceased.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

A. F. Craig, Jr., of Craig & Roberts, Independence, for appellant.

Greif & Klotzbach, Independence, for appellee.

RAWLINGS, Justice.

Emma L. Miguet died testate. The executors of her estate filed a final report to which one legatee interposed objection. From decree entered by trial court the executors appeal and objector cross-appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

Testatrix died December 9, 1966, seized of certain property including two farms. The tract instantly involved is specifically described in what is designated paragraph Fourth of the will, infra. For convenience and brevity this realty is hereinafter referred to as 'the farm'.

Decedent was survived by four daughters and at least one granddaughter, Noel Mary Skarpmoen, the objector. Her mother was Ella Jane (Miguet) Skarpmoen, deceased.

The instant will was admitted to probate without challenge. In material part it provides:

NOTE: OPINION CONTAINS TABLE OR OTHER DATA THAT IS NOT VIEWABLE

NOTE: OPINION CONTAINS TABLE OR OTHER DATA THAT IS NOT VIEWABLE

By their final report the executors took the position that after payment of $52,077.22 total debts, estate expenses and other deductions, the one-fifth share out of farm sale proceeds due to Noel the granddaughter, is more than offset by the 'borrowed money' ($12,000) referred to in the will, Supra, with interest. Resultantly the executors assert Noel is entitled to nothing from this estate.

Prior to hearing on Noel's objections the parties entered into this evidentiary agreement:

'It is stipulated that Emma L. Miguet died December 9, 1966, and that the Will was dated November 10, 1960. It is further stipulated that the total amount of the Estate reported for inheritance tax purposes was $182,058.10, and that the farm in question, described in the Will, located in Byron Township, was sold at public auction for $80,880.00. It is stipulated that a mortgage was made by Emma L. Miguet to the Prudential Life Insurance Company, which mortgage was recorded March 22, 1950, at Book 284, Page 193, in the office of the Buchanan County, Iowa Recorder, and that this mortgage was released in Book 335, Page 208, on the 24th day of March, 1965, and that said mortgage was in the amount of $20,000.00. It is stipulated that Noel Skarpmoen is over the age of Twenty-One (21) years at this time. It is stipulated that Emma L. Miguet, Decedent, during her lifetime was one of the Executors of the John Wise Estate, and filed a claim in the John Wise Estate for money loaned John Wise. A special administrator was appointed to investigate the matter and act on the claim, and he reported to the Court that Emma Wise Miguet borrowed money from Prudential Life Insurance Company and mortgaged a farm individually owned by her in the amount of $20,000.00. That said loan was completed on or about the 20th day of March, 1950. That of the $20,000.00 received from Prudential Insurance Company, Emma Wise Miguet loaned to John Wise the sum of $19,000.00 on or about the 22nd day of March, 1950. That on the 30th day of July, 1956, the Court approved and report of the special administrator and allowed the claim of Emma Miguet in the John Wise Estate.'

Other material facts will be later considered.

Trial court decreed the aforesaid 'borrowed money', and, as best determined some debts and estate expenses be deducted from the farm sale price, leaving a net of $47,081.96 out of which Noel was entitled to receive one-fifth or $9,416.39.

The executors here contend trial court erred in deducting the 'borrowed money' plus accrued interest from the farm sale proceeds rather than charging it against Noel's distributive share, and in deducting from such proceeds only part of testatrix' debts and estate expenses.

On cross-appeal Noel claims trial court's interpretation of the will and resultant determination regarding distributive rights to the farm sale fund is erroneous as to debts and expenses deducted therefrom.

Although the matter before us was not initiated as a declaratory judgment proceeding, we are, in effect, called upon to interpret decedent's self-prepared testamentary instrument.

I. Despite an assertion by executors to the contrary, this is not a will contest. The Code 1966, Sections 633.308--633.320; In re Estate of Ditz, 255 Iowa 1272, 1278--1279, 125 N.W.2d 814; Smith v. Negley, 304 S.W.2d 464, 468 (Tex.Civ.App); Black's Law Dictionary, Revised Fourth Ed., page 1773.

Neither are we confronted with an action for involuntary appointment of guardian or establishment of a contested claim.

This matter was, therefore, statutorily triable as in equity. The Code 1966, Section 633.33. It is accordingly reviewable de novo. Ia.R.Civ.P. 334, 344(f) (7); In re Estate of Luke, 184 N.W.2d 42 (Iowa), opinion filed February 9, 1971; In re Estate of Sheimo, 261 Iowa 775, 778, 156 N.W.2d 681; In re Estate of Thompson, 164 N.W.2d 141, 146 (Iowa).

Finally, on this subject, our review is confined to those propositions properly assigned and argued. In re Estate of Martin, 261 Iowa 630, 634, 155 N.W.2d 401; Allerton-Clio-Lineville Community School District v. County Board of Education of Wayne County, 258 Iowa 846, 848, 140 N.W.2d 722.

II. Inceptionally it is well settled, in cases such as this, (1) testator's intent is the polestar and if expressed must control; (2) that intent must to gleaned from a consideration of, (a) all language contained within the will, (b) the scheme of distribution, (c) circumstances surrounding testator at time the will was executed, (d) existing properly established facts; and (3) technical rules of construction should be resorted to only if the will is clearly ambiguous, conflicting, or testator's intent is for any reason uncertain. In re Estate of Twedt, 173 N.W.2d 545, 549 (Iowa). See McCarthy v. McCarthy, 178 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Iowa); In re Estate of Staab, 173 N.W.2d 866, 870--871 (Iowa).

Furthermore, in ascertaining a testator's intent, courts may sometimes discard, transpose, or supply words in a will. In re Estate of Ditz, 254 Iowa 444, 448--449, 117 N.W.2d 825. See also In re Estate of Braun, 256 Iowa 55, 60, 126 N.W.2d 318; 95 C.J.S. Wills §§ 612--613; 57 Am.Jur., Wills, § 1153.

And if a testamentary provision is reasonably susceptible to two constructions, one making it void or inoperative, the other rendering it valid and effective, the latter must be accepted, the former rejected. Layton v. Tucker, 237 Iowa 623, 626, 23 N.W.2d 297. See also 95 C.J.S. Wills § 614.

Additionally, punctuation marks may be corrected to obtain a more intelligent understanding of the language used. In re Estate of Gerdes, 245 Iowa 778, 783, 62 N.W.2d 777. See also In re Estate of Thompson, 164 N.W.2d 141, 147 (Iowa); 95 C.J.S. Wills §§ 606--612; 57 Am.Jur., Wills, § 1155; Annot. 70 A.L.R.2d 215.

Also, as stated in the case of In re Estate of Roberts, 171 N.W.2d 269, 272 (Iowa): '* * * the form of the will has no bearing on the intentions of the maker, and we have often held that the arrangement of the will or the order in which its clauses or paragraphs appear is not controlling and may be of little significance since the will must be read and construed as a whole. (Authorities cited).'

We also accord recognition to this pertinent statement of principle in 57 Am.Jur., Wills, § 1150:

'It is frequently recognized that in ascertaining the meaning of words used in a will, a distinction exists betmeen instruments drawn by skilled testamentary draftsmen and those prepared by persons obviously unlearned in the law; words found in documents of the first kind are to be construed with some strictness, with emphasis being placed upon their accepted technical meaning, while the language exhibited in wills of the other sort is to be interpreted liberally with reference to its popular meaning. Thus, the opinion has been expressed that where a will has been drawn by one learned in the law, the words employed will ordinarily be given their accustomed technical meaning, but where it is drawn by a layman the language used may be given the meaning it would commonly have to a person in his situation.'

See In re Estate of Clifton, 207 Iowa 71, 77, 218 N.W. 926; 95 C.J.S. Wills § 600b.

III. An examination of the will, Supra, discloses it is in handwritten narrative form, with paragraph numbers supplied which are actually of little significance.

Paragraph First states: 'It is my wish that all my debts and expenses be paid.'

We are satisfied a variant meaning must be here attributed to use of the words 'debts' and 'expenses'.

As instantly employed, 'debts' must have meant, to testatrix, her personal obligations.

See The Code 1966, Sections 633.425--633.426; Nolte v. Nolte, 247 Iowa 868, 878, 76 N.W.2d 881; 97 C.J.S. Wills § 1312.

Then, by specific use in the same provision of the words 'and expenses' she clearly recognized other distinguishable and unavoidable obligations not self-initiated. In this area it is evident decedent intended all costs attendant upon last illness, burial and those relating to administration of her estate, including estate taxes and fees, be treated as expenses. See The Code 1966, Sections 633,425, 633.426, 633.449.

Any other interpretation would require that we give the words 'debts' and 'expenses' a like meaning, or read one of them out of the will despite a definitely expressed contrary desire. . see The Code 1966, Sections 633.425--633.426; In re Estate of Evans, 246 Iowa 893, 68 N.W.2d 289; Estate of Brown v. Hoge, 198 Iowa 373, 377--381, 199 N.W. 320.

IV. The executors argue testatrix qualified the foregoing by stating in paragraph Fifth, 'after all debts are paid'. In other words they contend this phrase, following the bequest to Noel and others in paragraphs Fourth and Fifth, means testatrix wanted all debts And expenses referred to in paragraph First,...

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