Residuary Clause Does Not Render Specific Bequest Ambiguous

March 18, 2013 | Erika Eckley

With respect to a decedent’s will, sometimes affected  parties may try to argue that provisions are ambiguous in an effort to try to rewrite terms of the will, inquire into the wisdom of the distribution, or implement principles of equity and justice. If the language of a will is clear and unambiguous, however, the court is supposed to implement the distribution as declared in the will. Normally, admission of extrinsic evidence is not permitted.

In this case, the decedent was the mother of both the plaintiff and the defendant. In 2001, she sold 160 acres of land to her son, the plaintiff, for $1. After this sale, the decedent executed her will. She still owned 80 acres of land. Her will expressly stated in Article III that her daughter, the defendant, would inherit the remaining 80 acres of land. The will also acknowledged that bequests to the plaintiff had been made during the decedent’s life. Because of these previous gifts, nothing was to be left to plaintiff in the will. The will also left the remainder of the estate to the defendant. However, Article IV of the will contained a residuary clause that read as follows:

“I hereby give, devise, and bequeath the rest, residue, and remainder of my estate, whether real, personal or mixed and whatsoever situated to my daughter, [Mary].  However, any agricultural real estate which is included in this bequest shall be subject to an option to my son, [John], to purchase such agricultural real estate at the sum of $1,200 per acre, provided, however, that my son shall complete said purchase within one year from the date of my death.  The price of this option shall be net of all closing costs.”

After the will was admitted and the plaintiff was named as executor, the plaintiff filed a petition for declaratory judgment seeking clarification of the rights of the children under the will. The plaintiff argued that the residuary clause made the will ambiguous because it included inconsistent dispositions of the same property. That argument was made in spite of the fact that the residuary clause clearly gave the son the option to only buy agricultural property that was included in the residuary of the estate by virtue of the clause referring to agricultural property “included in this bequest.”  Specifically, the plaintiff argued the option to purchase agricultural land in the residuary clause was inconsistent because the only agricultural land the decedent owned was the 80 acres devised to defendant. The defendant sought summary judgment to dismiss the declaratory judgment action because the will was clear and unambiguous.

The district court easily dispatched of the plaintiff’s argument and granted the defendant’s motion finding that the will clearly and unambiguously expressed decedent’s intent to devise her 80 acre parcel to the defendant.  However, the plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed that the decedent’s will was unambiguous. The court said that the 80 acre parcel was expressly given to the defendant and clearly explained why the plaintiff was not given the parcel. The court held that if the decedent had wanted the plaintiff to have the right to purchase the specific parcel, the option could have been included within the same section of the will.

The residuary clause, the court held, was clearly a residual clause and clearly provided that if any agricultural land not specifically devised in the will existed, the plaintiff had the option to purchase the land. As a result, the residuary clause did not render the specific bequest to the defendant ambiguous. Krohn v. Frazee, No. 3-156/12-1715, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 335 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 13, 2013).