Court Affirms No Undue Influence Occurred in Farm Inheritance
On August 3, 2022, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed that the plaintiff failed to prove that his sibling exercised undue influence over their father. For personal reasons, a farmer intentionally left two of his three children out of his will and trust. The court concluded that it was unlikely the farmer was susceptible to coercion; thus, no undue influence occurred.
A farmer died leaving behind three adult children, Michelle, Chad, and Emily. His estate was worth almost $3 million. The farmer and Michelle had little to no contact after she graduated high school in 1984. Beginning in 1995, Chad had intermittently worked on the farm full-time with his father. Emily also helped on the farm with the bookkeeping. In 2007, the farmer named Emily as his Power of Attorney.
Chad struggled with substance abuse issues and had several criminal charges levied against him over the years. In 2012, Chad spent two weeks in jail for the possession of drug paraphernalia. During this time, the farmer used a “do-it-yourself” kit to make a new will and trust. The will left all “tangible personal property” to his daughter, Emily. The will provided that the farmer intentionally left nothing to Michelle and Chad. The farmer then left the residue of his estate to a revocable trust. After paying any debts and taxes, Emily would receive the residue. The trust document again stated that the farmer intentionally left nothing to his other two children.
The farmer’s relationship with his son continued to decline and eventually culminated in a court-issued no contact order around 2015. The farmer lived in an assisted-living facility for several years before passing away in 2018. Chad and Michelle initiated this lawsuit bringing claims of undue influence and tortious interference with an inheritance. The court dismissed these claims finding in favor of Emily. Chad appealed.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that Chad failed to prove that Emily unduly influenced the farmer’s will. To establish undue influence, the proponent has the burden to prove that:
- The testator “was susceptible to undue influence”;
- The defendant “had an opportunity to exercise undue influence and effect the wrongful purpose”;
- The defendant “had a disposition to influence unduly to procure an improper favor”; and
- “The result, reflected in the will, was clearly the effect of undue influence.”
In re Est. of Bayer, 574 N.W.2d 667, 671 (Iowa 1998). The district court found that Emily had the chance to exercise undue influence and that there were some indications that she “would be inclined to exert some influence.” However, the district court concluded that Chad failed to show that the farmer was susceptible to undue influence.
The Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion. Neutral witnesses testified that the farmer did not seem confused when creating his estate plan or pre-arranging his funeral service. The farmer’s nurse practitioner testified that she believed the farmer was competent at the time he executed the will. Additionally, there was evidence that during this time the farmer continued to run his operation, act as an executor of his father’s estate, and serve as a bookkeeper for the local fire department. The court explained that there was substantial evidence to support a finding that the farmer disinherited Chad because of his drug and alcohol use, not because of undue influence.
Chad also claimed that Emily, as the farmer’s power of attorney, had a confidential relationship with their father. Chad argued that there is a presumption of undue influence when an inter vivos transfer occurs between parties in a confidential relationship. However, as the district court noted, “this matter contests only a will and trust that involved no inter vivos transfers to other persons….” Because Chad offered no legal support for his argument, the court affirmed that Chad failed to prove Emily unduly influenced the trust.
Tortious Interference with an Inheritance
Lastly, the court considered Chad’s tortious interference claim. To establish a tortious interference claim, the proponent must show, among other things, that the defendant “committed an intentional and independent legal wrong.” Buboltz v. Birusingh, 962 N.W.2d 747, 753 (Iowa 2021). Here, Chad claimed that Emily committed a legal wrong by unduly influencing their father. Because there was insufficient evidence that Emily did unduly influence the farmer, the court affirmed the dismissal of this claim.
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