Supreme Court Clarifies When Dismissal of Indispensable Parties is Appropriate in Will Contests

July 3, 2024 | Jennifer Harrington

On May 31, 2024, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a district court’s determination that a previously dismissed party was an “indispensable party” and therefore required to remain a party until the end of the lawsuit. The court found that Iowa Code § 633.312, which requires all interested parties to be joined in a will contest, was satisfied because the dismissed party was initially a party and consented to the dismissal. The court found both the statute and court rules do not require the party to remain involved until the end of trial.


Richard Janssen, father to four sons and two daughters, passed away in September of 2018. He left behind two wills, one from 2014 and another from April 2018. The 2014 will gave remainder interests of the the family farmland to Gary and Larry Janssen, two of Richard's sons. The other children, except a daughter named Sheryl, received a $60,000 cash payment. Sheryl was intentionally disinherited. The 2018 will gave Debra and Sheryl remainder interests of the family farmland. Dean and Jeff received $60,000 payments with the remainder of the estate being split among Debra, Sheryl, Gary, and Larry.

Richard died three months after executing the 2018 will, the four brothers contested its validity. They argued that Richard lacked the testamentary capacity to create the will and that their sisters, Debra and Sheryl, unduly influenced their father. The case proceeded to trial, which ended in a mistrial on November 6, 2019, due to a hung jury.

The retrial was scheduled for June 22, 2021. On May 28, Dean and Jeff voluntarily dismissed their claims and removed themselves from the lawsuit. The day before trial, the remaining plaintiffs sought dismissal of all claims against Debra. On the morning of trial, the court considered the motion, all parties consented to the dismissal of Debra, and the trial proceeded. The jury found that Debra had unduly influenced her father and tortiously interfered with Gary and Larry’s inheritance.

Post-trial motions were filed. One was a motion to dismiss from Sheryl claiming Debra was an “indispensable party” to the will contest, and her absence from the June 2021 trial deprived the district court of jurisdiction.  The district court found this argument persuasive, dismissed the jury verdict, and granted a new trial. It noted that Sheryl, Dean and Jeff would be indispensable parties to the new trial. Larry and Gary filed a motion to reconsider, which was denied, and then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court chose to retain the case.


The Supreme Court found that Sheryl was not an indispensable party.  The court examined Iowa Code § 633.312 and Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure (IRCP) 1.234(2), which provided the answer on whether Debra was required to be present at the June 2021 trial.  Under Iowa Code § 633.312, the court can order a person to be joined as a defendant when someone has a stake in the outcome of a will contest but hasn't joined as a plaintiff. The ICRP 1.234(2), in part, defines an indispensable party as one whose interests would be unfairly affected by the outcome without their presence in the lawsuit.

Sheryl argued that dismissing Debra prior to the July 2021 trial “deprived the court of authority to enter judgment because a court can only adjudicate the rights of parties who are before it.” She argued § 633.312 requires a party to remain a party until the final disposition of the lawsuit. According to Sheryl’s argument, since Debra was dismissed prior to the final disposition, the court lacked the authority to enter judgment, and a new trial must take place.

The court reviewed the language of § 633.312 to determine if the statute requires all interested parties to remain involved in the case until final judgment. The court found § 633.312 was unambiguous and “imposes an independent duty on courts to ‘bring in’ any additional interested parties[.]” The court found that the statute was satisfied when Debra was brought into the lawsuit initially and made aware of the legal proceedings.

The court then analyzed whether the statute and rule require an interested party to a will contest to remain involved until final disposition. Neither § 633.312 nor IRCP 1.234(2) address whether subsequent dismissal is allowed, both are silent on the issue. The court found the rules of construction do not allow the judiciary to read additional requirements into a statute or rule. Therefore, there is no requirement that the interested party remain involved. Further, the court reasoned that the once a party has been joined, their due process rights have been properly protected. The court then reversed the district court’s judgment for a new trial and remanded the case back to district court.