Court Reviews Will Contest with Intentional Interference with Inheritance Claim

November 4, 2020 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

On November 4, 2020, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling in a seven-sibling dispute over the inheritance of 240 acres of farmland. The court affirmed a jury verdict setting aside a mother’s will due to lack of mental capacity and undue influence, but reversed the portion of the verdict finding intentional interference with an inheritance. The court remanded for a new trial.


In this case, the plaintiffs--five middle siblings—sued their brothers—the oldest and the youngest sibling—seeking to have their mother’s 2012 will set aside for undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. They also sought damages for intentional interference with an inheritance. While earlier wills drafted by the mother and father had divided the 240-acre farm equally among the siblings, the 2012 will, executed after the father’s death, left the farm only to the two defendants.

At trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence showing that the older brother had long tried to convince his parents to exclude his other five siblings and leave the farm only to him and his youngest brother. At a 2005 family meeting, for example, the older brother “was dictating to [the parents] how he thought things should be handled.” The parents, however, had resisted this pressure. In 2009, the defendants met with the family attorney and told him that their parents wanted to create new wills which left the farm to them. After the family attorney showed the drafts to the parents, however, the parents rejected the proposed wills and created new wills dividing their estates equally among the seven children. The father passed away later that year, and the mother suffered a severe mental decline because of Alzheimer’s disease. Testimony suggested that the mother was mostly unable to carry on a conversation after the father died. The mother’s long-time attorney had written a letter in 2010 stating that he did “not feel [the mother was] able to competently sign a new will.”

In 2012, the mother’s attorney sent a letter to the oldest son asking him and the youngest brother to stop attempting to convince their mother to change her will. In response, the older brother secretly worked with a new attorney to have the mother execute a new will leaving the farm to the two defendants. The older brother paid this lawyer personally and did not inform the new attorney of his parents’ previous refusals to execute such a will.

Lawsuit and Trial

After the mother passed away in 2017, the remaining five siblings filed their lawsuit. After trial, the jury found that the 2012 will should be set aside because the mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, lacked the mental capacity to sign it and that the will was a result of undue influence. The jury also found that the older brother did interfere with the plaintiffs’ inheritance, but did not award damages. In response to post-trial motions, the trial court determined that “the jury’s award of no damages on the intentional interference with inheritance claim was because the jury wanted to restore the siblings to a one-seventh position that they would have had under their mother’s most recent prior will, which the jury presumably believed would occur based on its verdict on the will contest count.” Because the siblings had not agreed to proceed under the most recent will, the trial court had ordered an “additur” or additional damages payment to each of the plaintiffs equal to the amount each would have received under their mother’s most recent prior will–$319,860.88—with the judgment to be reduced by any amounts each plaintiff would receive if the defendants later agreed to probate the earlier will.  The court also awarded attorney fees in the amount of $146,025.32 and costs of $3,233.94 to one plaintiff, and attorney fees of $86,838.27 and costs of $7,603.77 to the remaining plaintiffs. The defendants appealed, claiming the jury instructions were erroneous and that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict.

2012 Will Contest Challenge

On appeal, the defendants claimed there was insufficient evidence for the jury verdict setting aside the 2012 will because the plaintiffs did not meet the high burden to show lack of mental capacity or undue influence. In support of their argument, the defendants pointed to testimony from the attorney who prepared the 2012 will and witnesses to the 2012 will execution who did not have concerns about the mother’s mental state when she executed the will.

In affirming the verdict, the court ruled that the mother’s mental capacity was a question of fact for the jury and that there was substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict. The plaintiffs presented witness testimony and medical records showing their mother’s severely diminished mental capacity. Key evidence included the 2010 assessment by the mother’s long-time attorney that she was not capable of executing a will and testimony regarding the oldest son’s opportunity and inclination to exert undue influence.  

Intentional Interference with Inheritance Challenge

The defendants also challenged the intentional interference with inheritance verdict. On review, the court stated that an individual commits the tort of intentional interference with inheritance when he uses fraud or another wrongful act to intentionally prevent another from receiving an inheritance. The court also noted that Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that while the tort cannot arise outside of a will contest, an intentional-interference-with-inheritance claim “has value in circumstances when a probate proceeding cannot provide an adequate remedy.” Youngblut v. Youngblut, 945 N.W.2d 25, 35-37 (Iowa 2020). To prevail, the plaintiffs must show the act is “independently tortious.” See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 774B cmt. c. Specifically, the defendants claimed that the jury instructions did not include this language.

The court agreed that this language was necessary, but found that the jury instructions were accurate. The jury instructions asked whether the defendants acted “in one or more of the following wrongful means” and then listed four theories of recovery: fraud, duress, coercion, or misusing confidential information. Because defendants are not required to specifically commit one of these acts, the instruction accurately asked whether the defendants engaged in “tortious means.”

The jury instructions also required the plaintiffs to prove that one or both defendants engaged in at least one of the specified wrongful means: fraud, duress, coercion, or misusing confidential information. The defendants claimed there was insufficient evidence to submit any of these theories of wrongful acts to the jury.

The court ruled that there was substantial evidence that the defendants engaged in fraud, duress, and coercion. For years, the defendants attempted to convince their parents to change their wills. They met with the family attorney without their parents present to draft a will leaving the farm to them. The older brother used his own funds to pay for the second attorney to draft a new will. This allowed the older brother to bypass his sister who normally paid their mother’s bills and hide the new will. After finally learning of the 2012 will, the plaintiffs obtained a conservatorship for their mother in order to protect her assets.

Conversely, the court ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to support a theory of misuse of confidential information. Because only a general verdict form was submitted to the jury, the court could not determine whether the jury relied on the erroneously submitted theory of misuse of confidential information or the substantiated theory of fraud, duress, and coercion. As such, the court reversed the intentional interference verdict and remanded for a new trial.