Widow Cannot Make Other Heirs Pay Outstanding Mortgage of Homestead Property

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirms a declaratory judgment ruling denying that the adult children of a widow's late spouse must pay off the mortgage of her professed homestead In The Matter of the Estate of James Anthony Goforth, Deceased (Iowa Ct. App., No. 21-1965, July 20, 2022).

Mr. James and Mrs. Karen Goforth, after marrying in 2018, lived on James’ property in Iowa. Several months later, Mr. Goforth died, leaving Mrs. Goforth as well as her late husband’s two adult children from a previous relationship. Mrs. Goforth had never joined the mortgage.

Mrs. Goforth claimed that the property where she and Mr. Goforth had been living served as her homestead. Pointing to cases from the early 1900s, she argued that because the property served as such and she had never joined the mortgage, the balance of the mortgage should be paid off using the other heirs’ share of the estate.

The district court disagreed. Mrs. Goforth appealed. She contended that because the property was her homestead, she was afforded certain rights. Yet the court found that the section of the current probate code on which her case depended neither refers to, nor distinguishes between, “homesteads” and “real property.” The cases to which Mrs. Goforth had referred, the court concluded, did not reflect current probate code and so were irrelevant.

According to current Iowa code, the court added, the distribution of assets following Mr. Goforth’s death entitled Mrs. Goforth to half of “the value of all the legal or equitable estates in real property possessed by [Mr. Goforth]” during their marriage. Because the mortgage had not been paid off before his death, Mr. Goforth did not own the property “free and clear,” and so Mrs. Goforth did not, either.

She also had failed, the district court said, to cite any other statutes that would force her late husband’s other heirs to satisfy the mortgage: “If the legislature had intended to grant such important rights to the surviving spouse – and to place such onerous burdens on other heirs — we think the legislature would have said so.”

The Court of Appeals affirms the ruling.

Read the opinion in full.