Iowa Court Says Scrivener’s Testimony Cannot be Used to Rewrite Farm Owner’s Will

January 24, 2024 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

The case is In the Matter of the Estate of Veronica J. Roethler, No. 22-2045 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2024).

On January 10, 2024, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that the district court improperly considered extrinsic evidence when interpreting a will. The decedent’s will directed one farm property to be held in a trust and the other farm property be evenly divided between her three children. Based on the testimony of the scrivener of the will, the district court concluded that the testator intended both parcels to be placed in the trust. Because the will was not ambiguous, extrinsic evidence was inadmissible. Thus, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s order.


The testator owned two parcels of farmland. One property contained 112 acres of land and the homestead while the second property contained 151 acres. The testator hired an attorney to draft her will.

Under the “Farm Real Estate” heading, the homestead would be held in a trust. Upon the death of the testator’s last surviving grandchild, the trust would terminate, and the land would be distributed to the great-grandchildren. No farmland could be sold until the trust terminated. The will also contained a provision entitled “Remainder of the Estate” in which the residue of the estate would be divided equally among her three children. The 151-acre parcel was governed by this residuary provision.

After the testator passed away, her daughter, acting as trustee, petitioned the probate court for declaratory judgment. She claimed that a latent ambiguity existed, and her mother intended both parcels of land to be distributed according to the Farm Real Estate provision. The testator’s two sons resisted arguing there was no ambiguity.

During a hearing, the lawyer who executed the will testified that the testator intended for both parcels to be included in the trust. She claimed that the testator was scared that “her two sons, would want to sell the farm and split it up, and she did not want that to happen.”

The district court determined that the will was ambiguous because the 151-acre parcel, valued at $1.72 million, was not mentioned. Thus, it allowed the lawyer’s testimony and determined that the testator intended to place all the farmland in the trust. The two brothers appealed.

Will Ambiguity

On appeal, the brothers argued that the will was unambiguous and, therefore, the district court improperly considered extrinsic evidence. In reversing the district court’s order, the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed, explaining that the intent of the testator controls the interpretation of a will. “The intention of the testator must be ascertained from the will itself, and from nothing else, if its language is plain and unambiguous.” Palmer v. Evans, 124 N.W.2d 856, 859–60 (Iowa 1963). A court may consider extrinsic evidence only if it determines that the will is ambiguous.

A latent ambiguity exists when an extrinsic or collateral matter outside of the will creates uncertainty. The daughter argued that the second parcel of land was “inadvertently and mistakenly left out part of the ‘Farm Real Estate’ which was owned by the Decedent when she was drafting the will, contrary to the intent of the Decedent.”

“[A] ‘scrivener’s error’ is a mistake of transcription, which is to say a mismatch between original (e.g., spoken word, manuscript) and copy.” Goche v. WMG, L.C., No. 18-0793 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 6, 2019). However, the testimony of a scrivener cannot be used to determine the testator’s intent. The court must consider, “not what the testator meant to say but what he meant by what he did say.”

Extrinsic evidence cannot be used to redraft the decedent’s intent because “testators are presumed to have known the effect of the language of their wills.” In re Est. of Rogers, 473 N.W.2d 36, 40 (Iowa 1991). Here, the testator reviewed her will before signing it. Therefore, the court presumed she understood the meaning of the effect of the chosen wording. Because no ambiguity existed, extrinsic evidence was not admissible.