Court Affirms Executor Did Not Trigger Will’s No-Contest Clause

May 30, 2023 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

The case is In the Matter of the Estate of Michael W. Marley II, Deceased, No. 22-1135 (Iowa Ct. App. May 24, 2023).

After the probate court set aside a 2016 will for lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence, the same executor submitted the decedent’s 2012 will to probate. A beneficiary under both wills claimed that the executor violated the 2012 will’s no-contest clause by submitting the 2016 will and also argued that the executor should be removed. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed that the executor did not challenge the 2012 will directly or indirectly. It also held that the beneficiary failed to show that the executor was unsuitable and should be removed from her role.


Before passing away, Michael Marley II executed wills in 2012 and 2016. Both wills nominated his sister to serve as executor. After passing away in 2018, the sister submitted the 2016 will to probate. A cousin of the decedent objected claiming that the 2016 will was “the product of incompetence, undue influence[,] and fraud.” The 2016 will was more favorable for the sister while the 2012 will was more favorable for the cousin.

The probate court determined that the 2016 will should be set aside because the decedent did not have testamentary capacity and the sister exerted undue influence over her brother. Neither party appealed.

Soon after, the sister submitted the 2012 will to probate which the court accepted. This will contained a no-contest clause which disinherited any individual who indirectly or directly contested the will. The cousin petitioned the court to enforce the no-contest clause against the sister and asked the court to remove her as executor.

The district court held that the executor did not indirectly or directly trigger the no-contest clause and declined to remove the sister from her role as executor. The cousin appealed.

No-Contest Clause

In general, no-contest provisions eliminate or limit the inheritance of a beneficiary who challenges the will. However, Iowa courts will not enforce such a provision if the beneficiary contests the will in good faith and with probable cause. In re Est. of Workman, No. 16-0908, at *2 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2017).

The cousin argued that the executor directly challenged the 2012 will by submitting the 2016 will to the probate court. The court disagreed, finding that an individual directly challenges a will by filling a written petition with the probate court to set aside the will. See Iowa Code § 633.308.

The court also determined that the executor did not challenge the will indirectly. Submitting a later will which the petitioner knows to be invalid would trigger a no-contest clause. However, there was no evidence that the sister knew the 2012 will was invalid. The probate judge, who also presided over 2016 will dispute, determined that the sister was able to exert influence as a “caretaker and problem-solver as opposed to an opportunistic will usurper.” Additionally, the Court of Appeals noted that best course of action when there are multiple wills is usually for an executor to submit the most recent one. See In re Est. of Falck, No. 02-0016, at *4–5 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 26, 2003).

Removal of Executor

Lastly, the cousin claimed that the executor was unsuitable and should be removed from this role. Although the court considered this argument waived because the cousin failed to cite any supporting authority, it did note that this claim would fail on the merits.

An executor is unsuitable if there is evidence that she would impede the probate process, a conflict of interest exists, or if there is unwarranted hostility between the executor and beneficiaries. Here, the cousin did not present evidence that any of these conditions existed. As a result, the court affirmed that the sister did not need to be removed from her role as executor.