Sunday, November 09, 2014

When Your Biological Child is Not Your Child, According to the Iowa Court of Appeals


For the most part, I think our appellate courts do a pretty good job of deciding cases and justifying their rationale.  I may not always agree with the result, but I can at least understand the reasoning.


But in a recent ruling from Iowa Court of Appeals (Mohr v. Langerman and Mohr, No. 13-1422, Oct. 15, 2014), I'm left scratching my head.  As always, the facts are "interesting".  Put all those pieces together and you have a case that makes you go hmmm.

Facts: Jerry Mohr was married for 24 years.  But, while he was married, he (1) intentionally had intercourse with another woman for the purpose of having a child and (2) lived with yet another woman and helped raise her child.  While Jerry lived in Arizona, he died owning some property in Iowa.  And, of course, he apparently didn't feel the need to have a will.  Duh.  So when the end came for Jerry, he left behind quite the legal mess.  Following his death, the biological relationship was conclusively established in Arizona between Jerry and the son that he had with the woman he had one relationship with for that purpose.  You know, that DNA testing that gives you a nearly 100% confidence level.  You know, a court ruling by a court and that whole full faith and credit clause of the US Constitution.

Iowa's intestate laws provide that if someone doesn't have a will, and they die with a spouse and children that are not children of that surviving spouse, the spouse and the children will divide the estate.  (Probably need to update the intestate law summary for this blog...another day.)  In particular, Iowa Code § 633.222 provide that a biological child inherits from their father if there is paternity evidence or the child has been recognized by the father.

Seems simple enough.  Code says if there is paternity evidence or recognition, and since we have DNA evidence, end of story.  Not so fast my friend.  Although pretty much every person 5 years of age or older knows what "or" means, our court feels that they can't give a plain English interpretation of "or".  What the Iowa Court of Appeals basically said was 'while we think we know what "or" means, because the Iowa Supreme Court says that "or" doesn't mean "or" in these circumstances, we are stuck with that ridiculous position.'  What????

Keeping in mind that this statute was originally written decades ago before we knew what DNA was or what we can do with DNA, and realizing that once statutes are written, it is a slow and difficult process to amend a statute, the court still maintained that the legislature needs to amend the statute to prevent our Supreme Court's ridiculous ruling from over a hundred years ago.  Another reason why judges and lawyers get a bad rap, should anyone care to read this probate case.

Now, in all fairness, the Court eventually comes around and determines that the son is actually Jerry's son, but it does so via an awkward, backdoor analysis that contorts itself to fit on the page it was written.  Maybe they felt they were constrained by ancient rulings and couldn't establish/correct the proper rationale, so they wanted to get the right result in another method.  Basically they relied on the testimony of the mother of the child and her basically self-serving statements that Jerry "recognized" their child as his son.  Never mind that we have this fantastic DNA evidence that can conclusively establish that it was his son, we're going to follow this testimony of a mother trying to get an inheritance to her son.  Good grief.

The morale of the story: if you have a biological child out there that you want to disinherit, and you don't want to spend a minimal amount of money to have a will written, you can just refuse to recognize that child as in fact your child and, according to Iowa courts, that child will not inherit from you.

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