In Langerman v. Mohr, a November 3, 2021 opinion, the Iowa appellate court affirmed a probate court decision that an illegitimate son was the legal heir of his father because the father recognized him as his child in a general and notorious way.
The Facts Of Langerman v. Mohr
Jerry Mohr died intestate (without a valid will) in Arizona in 2011. Jerry was married to Pamela Mohr at the time of his death – they had separated in 1994 but never divorced.
Amy Langerman met Jerry around 1990 or 1991. They became “friends with benefits.” In 1994, Jerry and Amy engaged in sexual relations for the express purpose of conceiving a child. Jerry referred to the child during Amy’s pregnancy as his “Baby Zygote.” Amy gave birth to Jonathon in 1994. A couple of years after Amy gave birth to Jonathon, Jerry moved to Arizona. At the time of his death, Jerry was in a relationship with another woman.
Amy filed an action for paternity on Jonathon’s behalf in Arizona. Paternity was established by obtaining tissue samples from a hospital where Jerry underwent surgery and submitting them for DNA testing. An Arizona court determined Jonathon is Jerry’s biological child.
Jonathon sought a declaratory ruling in Iowa that he was Jerry’s heir, which would entitle him to share in the proceeds of the sale of Iowa farmland in which Jerry had an interest when he died.
His proposed exhibits included anonymous letters Amy received in early 2012, advising Amy of Jerry’s death and stating Jerry was proud to have a son, had shared that sentiment with close friends, had shown pictures of his son with the author, and wanted his son to have money for college and his future. In one of the letters, the sender enclosed a number of correspondences and photos Amy had mailed to Jerry. Pamela objected to the admission of the exhibits.
In its written ruling, the district court made these factual findings:
In support of her position that the court should find that [Jerry] did recognize Jonathon as his child, [Amy] testified that in her first trimester of pregnancy her oldest child was exposed to Fifth disease. She took the child to the doctor and after the doctor diagnosed and assured her that the child would be fine she inquired if she should be concerned about her pregnancy because of her exposure[.] She was told to consult with another doctor. She contacted Jerry and he came over and they both got on the phone and called the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Jerry asked to speak to a geneticist and he introduced himself as a surgeon and that his girlfriend was having their baby and that she was exposed to Fifth disease. “Can you tell me the morbidity and mortality for intrauterine exposure to Fifth disease?” They found out that it’s not a great thing to be exposed to but if something was going to happen, it would happen on its own and she would miscarry before [twenty] weeks. So they decided that there was no necessity to terminate the pregnancy and that she would carry it through and hope for the best.
On another occasion she had an ultrasound-guided amniocentesis and Jerry asked to attend with her. He came to pick her up and on the way she asked him “How do you want me to introduce you?” He said, “How about Dad?” When her doctor came in she said, “Rick, this is Dad. Dad, this is Rick”.
After Jonathon’s birth he would come around on occasion to see his son and ask “How’s my boy? How’s my baby?” and kiss him. One day he shows up and her father is there. She answered the door and told him that her dad was there but he wanted to come in and said “I want to meet my son’s grandfather.” Amy testified that “We went in and I said to my dad, “Dad, this is my friend Jerry Mohr. Jerry shook his hand and said, “Hello, Mr. Langerman. I’m pleased to meet my son’s grandfather.” She also testified that Jerry told his mother about her grandson when she was dying from lung cancer.
[Amy], after [Jerry’s] death, also received letters written by an anonymous friend, which Plaintiff relates bears directly on [Jerry’s] state of mind relative to his son. These letters are subject to authentication and hearsay objections, which will be addressed later in this ruling. The deposition of Dorothea Wagner Riley was introduced and admitted. She resides in Cornville, Arizona, which she describes as a suburb of Sedona, Arizona. She is widowed and is [eighty-two] years old. [Jerry] was her and her husband’s doctor and friend. She had a vivid dream and in the dream she dreamed about this little boy with blond hair and blue eyes. So she asked [Jerry], “Jerry, do you have a son?” And he said, “Yes.” She also attended a Celebration of Life for Jerry. At some point she learned that Amy Langerman was the mother of Jerry’s son.
The Iowa district court concluded there was clear and convincing evidence Jerry recognized Jonathon such that Jonathon would be considered an heir in Iowa. Pamela appealed, contending the trial court improperly admitted the anonymous letters. She also asserted there was not clear and convincing evidence of recognition to support the court’s declaration that Jonathon was a legal heir under Iowa probate law.
Who Is an Heir Under Iowa Probate Law?
See also Who Are Next Of Kin In Iowa?
At issue here was whether Jonathon is an “heir” under Iowa law, which would entitle him to share in the proceeds of the sale of Iowa farmland in which Jerry had an interest when he died.
How Can a Child Establish Legitimacy For Purposes Of Inheritance In Iowa?
A child can establish legitimacy for purposes of inheritance if the evidence proving paternity is available during the father’s lifetime or if the father recognized the child either in writing or in a general and notorious way.
Iowa Probate Code section 633.222 relates to the rights of biological children and establishes how a biological child can establish “legitimacy” for purposes of inheritance in Iowa. That provision currently provides:
633.222 biological child—inherit from father
Unless the child has been adopted, a biological child inherits from the child’s biological father if the evidence proving paternity is available during the father’s lifetime, or if the child has been recognized by the father as his child; but the recognition must have been general and notorious, or in writing. Under such circumstances, if the recognition has been mutual, and the child has not been adopted, the father may inherit from his biological child.
The Iowa Court summarized the law:
A contested heir must show heirship by clear and convincing evidence. Recognition means “to admit the fact, truth or validity” of a matter. [In re Estate of Evjen, 448 N.W.2d 23, 25 (Iowa 1989).] In the context of heirship, it means the father admitted or acknowledged the paternity. Id. Recognition need not be universal or so general and public as to have been known by all. Id. If the father denies paternity, as opposed to openly acknowledging it, recognition is less likely to be found. Id. In the absence of written recognition, “recognition must have been general and notorious.” Iowa Code § 633.222. “Recognition is a mental process . . . made manifest by overt acts or speech.” [Trier v. Singmaster, 167 N.W. 538, 541 (Iowa 1918).] Recognition may occur even though there are efforts to conceal the facts from some. Id. “It is generally held that recognition need not be ‘universal or so general in public as to have been known by all’; need not be continuous, ‘covering the whole period up to and including the time of the death of the putative father.’” [In re Wulf’s Estate, 48 N.W.2d 890, 894 (Iowa 1951)]. “A general and notorious recognition does not necessarily mean a continuous recognition covering the whole period up to and including the time of the death of the putative father. A recognition clearly shown to have been once deliberately and publicly made, made under circumstances that revealed no apparent motive to conceal, meets the requirements of the statute.” [In re Clark’s Estate, 290 N.W. 13, 30 (Iowa 1940) (quoted in Mohr II, 2017 WL 3067435, at *4)).]
The Iowa Court determined that while Jerry did not reveal his parenthood to Pamela or Beth, there existed clear and convincing evidence of a general and notorious recognition of Jonathon as his son:
We observe the letters indicate that Jerry was proud to have a son and that he shared that with close friends and colleagues. He shared pictures of his son with the author of the letter and others. Jerry had told the author of the letters that he wanted to make sure his son had enough money for college and possibly a little for the future. The author of the letters informed Amy that Jerry talked about his son more than you will ever know and that Jerry had told him that Amy was the mother of his child and that was where and how he knew to send the anonymous letters.
Jerry told Dorothea Riley, a patient and friend, he had a son; and, Dorothea learned this was known by others at Jerry’s memorial. Pamela herself (after Jerry’s death) learned it was “common knowledge” at the hospital Jerry worked that he had fathered a child with Amy. Further, the district court found the mother in this case to be credible. Amy testified to extensive contact and recognition of Jonathon as his son.
The Iowa appellate court affirmed the probate court’s declaration that Jonathon was Jerry’s son and rightful heir. Jerry’s recognition of Jonathon was general and notorious. Just because Jerry did not share that he had fathered Jonathon with his estranged wife or girlfriend, does not mean that recognition of Jonathon as an heir for purposes of inheritance was not accomplished under Iowa law.