Iowa Court Says No Undue Influence or Tortious Interference in Family Dispute
On July 24, 2019, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued summary judgment against a nephew in his lawsuit alleging claims of undue influence and tortious interference with a bequest of farmland against members of his family. The court found insufficient evidence to establish either claim.
Four siblings inherited farmland in Hancock County. Two of the siblings, Wilbur and Evelyn never married or had children. The other two siblings, Roy and Bruce, each had four children. Roy and Wilbur went into farming along with two of Roy’s sons, William and Lance. Aunt Evelyn died in 2012 and Uncle Wilbur passed away in 2016 at the age of 101. Roy’s son, William, did not inherit anything from his Uncle Wilbur and claimed his Uncle Bruce, Bruce’s children, and William’s three siblings unduly influenced Uncle Wilbur to leave all his farmland to them and exclude William from the will. William also claimed his family tortuously interfered with an expected bequest from Aunt Evelyn.
Aunt Evelyn signed her most current will in 2008. She left $103,000 to William. After the estate closed the probate in 2013, William did not contest the will. Uncle Wilbur had several different will variations throughout his life. In a 2003 will, Wilbur gave 80 acres of his farmland to Bruce and 80 acres to Roy’s children. In a 2009 codicil, however, Wilbur disinherited William and his sibling, Arlys, from inheriting their respective quarters of the 80 acres.
Undue influence occurs when the testator’s wishes are substituted for those of the person exercising influence over the testator. A person who is mentally weak is more likely to be susceptible to undue influence. To set aside a will for undue influence, the proponent must prove:
(1) the testator was susceptible to undue influence;
(2) the defendants had the opportunity to exert undue influence;
(3) the defendants were inclined to unduly influence the testator to procure an improper favor; and
(4) there was a result, reflected in the will, which was the clear effect of the undue influence.
In this case, the only elements at issue are the first and fourth element.
The lower court found Wilbur was not susceptible to undue influence as required by the first element. Witnesses described Wilbur as “bright, independent, and strong-willed until the end of his days.” He had renewed both his driver’s license and permit to carry at the age of 100. William presented evidence that his uncle need more help in his later years due to health issues. However, the court found these normal signs of aging did not show that he was mentally weak or susceptible to undue influence. Additionally, there was insufficient evidence that Bruce had dominance over Wilbur to exert undue influence.
In regards to the fourth element, the nephew William had to prove the alleged undue influence resulted in something more than an “unnatural, unjust, or unreasonable” result. Otherwise, a disappointed heir could claim an inference of undue influence anytime there was an unequal disposition. Here, William offered only speculation that Wilbur’s will was the result of undue influence. Because of that, the court granted summary judgment for the defendants.
Tortious Interference with a Bequest
To prove the defendant committed intentional interference with a bequest, a plaintiff must show:
(1) The plaintiff expected to receive a bequest from a third party; (2) the defendants knew of the plaintiff’s expected bequest; (3) the defendants intentionally and improperly interfered with the plaintiff’s expectancy through undue influence or other tortious means; (4) there was a reasonable certainty the plaintiff would have received an inheritance but for the defendants’ interference; and (5) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result of his loss of the bequest.
In re Estate of Boman, No. 16-0110, 2017 WL 512493, at *10 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 8, 2017). William and his wife testified that the Aunt Evelyn told them about her intent to give William property in her will. William presented evidence of an unsigned codicil to Aunt Evelyn’s 1992 will which gave William 40 acres of farmland. William claimed his Uncle Bruce interfered with his Aunt’s wishes by exerting undue influence to revoke her 1992 will and its codicil.
The court found there was insufficient evidence to establish the defendants used tortious conduct to deprive William of a valid expectancy. There was no reasonable degree of certainty that the Aunt would have bequeathed the farmland but for undue influence by the defendants. In addition, the claim Evelyn was susceptible to undue influence was nothing more than speculation. Because of this, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling and granted summary judgment to the defendants.
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