Disinherited Grandson Fails to Show that 96-Year-Old Grandmother Lacked Testamentary Capacity

December 8, 2023 | Jennifer Harrington

The case is In Re Estate of A. Irlene Johnson, No. 22-1730 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 25, 2023).

On October 25, 2023, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling that a 96-year-old woman had testamentary capacity when she rewrote her will to disown her family and to give all farmland to charity. Although she may have believed she had a life estate in some of the farm ground instead of the fee simple interest she held, the testatrix did not “need to have a perfect understanding of [her] ownership interest” to know the nature and extent of her property. The rewritten will was upheld, and the charity received all farmland.


Irlene Johnson owned 440 acres of farmland. In 2010 she executed a will that gave her son a life estate interest in 400 acres, with the remainder being split between her grandson and a trust for her great-grandchildren. The remaining 40 acres was to split between her grandson and the trust. In 2019, she rewrote her will. Her new will had all the farmland going to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

Although she had fee simple ownership of all 440 acres, in 2019 she had told three different attorneys that she had a life estate in 400 acres of the farmland. However, two months after signing the will, a great-granddaughter recorded Irlene. In those recordings, she repeatedly stated that she owned the 400 “clear in my name.”  She also stated, “That should be able to keep me. And there should be some left over for cancer research.”  

Irlene died later in 2019. Her grandson submitted the earlier will to probate, but St. Jude petitioned to probate the 2019 will. The grandson and son challenged the validity of the 2019 will, arguing that Irlene did not have testamentary capacity when she signed it. He argued that Irlene’s belief that she held a life estate instead of fee simple ownership showed that she did not know the nature and extent of her property. He reasoned that Irlene was unaware that she was giving 400 acres to St. Jude since she had told others she had a life estate in the property.  

The district court found that Irlene did have testamentary capacity in 2019. It held that Irlene only needed to know that she had an ownership interest in the property, not the specific type of ownership interest, for testamentary capacity. The grandson appealed that determination, arguing that the district court used the wrong legal standard to determine whether Irene had testamentary capacity at the time of signing.


The court reviewed the four-prong test that establishes testamentary capacity in Iowa:

A testator has capacity to execute a will if she (1) understands the nature of the instrument being executed, (2) understands the nature and extent of her property, (3) is able to identify and recall the natural objects of her bounty, and (4) realizes and knows the distribution she desires to make of her property. In re Est. of Adams, 234 N.W.2d 125, 127 (Iowa 1975).

The court explained that the third prong, understanding the nature and extent of one’s property, requires an individual to be aware of what type of ownership they hold. The court said that an individual does not need to have a perfect understanding, but must have “at least a general understanding” of their interest.

The court acknowledged that Irlene’s statements that she had a life estate generated a fact question about whether she met the third prong of the testatmentary capacity test. However, the court also acknowledged that the concept of a life estate is hard for non-lawyers to articulate. The court reasoned that Irlene’s use of the term “could be explained simply by imprecise articulation of a complex legal concept.” Further, the great-granddaughter’s later recordings demonstrate that Irlene was aware of her ownership interest and knew she had the ability to devise it. Overall, the court found there was “ample support” for the district court’s determination that Irlene had testamentary capacity when signing the 2019 will and affirmed the district court’s ruling.