Church’s Claims of Intentional Interference with Bequest Fails

November 28, 2010 | Erin Herbold


In this case, two churches named as contingent beneficiaries under a testamentary trust alleged that an attorney intentionally interfered with bequests under a will. The trial court and appellate court disagree, finding that the attorney handling the decedent’s estate properly administered the estate.  A married couple owned an 80-acre farm in Iowa which included their homestead. In 1978, they retired from farming and sold the homestead and cash rented the farm. They moved to town and met another couple at church who helped them out around the house. In 1994, the husband and wife executed mirror wills and named the other couple as successor co-executors after themselves. Financial powers were also executed naming the church couple as successor agents.  The husband died in 1998 and the wife moved to a nursing home in 2001. The church couple handled her finances and, in 2003, they signed a mortgage encumbering the wife’s house in town for a loan to pay for her nursing home care. When the couple told the wife about the sale of her home, she was very upset. 

The home was sold in 2004 and an attorney who had no prior legal relationship with the wife, represented the couple with respect to the sale of the home. Neither the attorney nor the couple were aware of the wife’s will at that time and farm was sold in 2004. The wife died in 2005. Her will was submitted for probate by the couple. The will provided that the wife’s debts and expenses were to be paid first and that a trust was created to establish a scholarship in the couple’s name from the proceeds of the sale of a farm. The proceeds were to be used as a loan fund to “anyone of the Christian faith” in the area that wanted to attend seminary school. The remainder of the estate was to be paid out to a son and the couple. The churches in the area filed a lawsuit against the attorney for professional malpractice, alleging that the attorney had a duty to the churches and failed to send them notice of probate and that they had been damaged from not receiving the proceeds of the farm sale. 

The attorney, of course, responded and defended his reputation saying that he gave notice to the bank that was to be administering the trust as required and owed no duty to notify the churches in the area. The trial court agreed with the attorney and dismissed the suit. They wrote that there was “no basis for the Court to impose a legal duty” on the attorney in favor of the plaintiffs. The churches had no right to interfere with the probate proceedings, because they were attempting to step into the shoes of the testator. 

The Iowa Court of Appeals agreed that the attorney had notified all of the required parties. The attorney at issue was a seasoned estate planning attorney and the churches were unable to produce any relevant evidence that they were entitled to the proceeds from the farm sale. New Hope Methodist Church v. Lawler and Swanson, No. 0-682/10-0211, 2010 Iowa App. LEXIS 1368 (Iowa Ct. App., Nov. 10, 2010).