Sister Prevails Against Brother in Farmland Inheritance Dispute

July 23, 2021 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

On July 21, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a daughter in a will contest between two siblings. The dispute arose because the deceased mother had intentionally omitted her son from her will, leaving her farmland to her daughter alone.

Background

After her husband passed away, Gladys Troendale updated her will, dividing her estate equally between her son and daughter, Steven and Michele. Gladys had health issues and suffered a stroke in 2002. She relied on her daughter, who had already moved back to the family farm, to assist her.

In 2015, Gladys executed a new will, leaving her entire estate to her daughter and stating:

I am deliberately omitting my son, Steven Troendle as a beneficiary . . . . I hold no ill will against my son Steven, but wish to leave my entire estate to my daughter Michele because she has a greater financial need for the inheritance and because she has cared for me for many years without any compensation through sickness and infirmity.

Gladys passed away the following year. Michele provided her brother with a copy of the will, yet Steven filed for probate using a 1964 will his parents had executed when they were both alive. The siblings served as co-executors of the estate, but had disagreements over the management of the farm property. Steven filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the 2015 will on the grounds that Michele exerted undue influence over their mother. Michele filed her own lawsuit against Steven, and the cases were consolidated for trial.

The jury ruled in Michele’s favor as to her claims of abuse of process, tortious interference with inheritance, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conversion, and malicious prosecution. The jury awarded damages for the conversion and malicious prosecution claims, but did not award damages for the other four claims. The jury also found that Steven did not prove that the 2015 will was a result of undue influence. The judge denied Steven’s motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and a directed verdict, and Steven appealed. Michele cross-appealed, seeking a new trial as to damages for her successful claims.

Judgment notwithstanding the Verdict

On appeal, Steven claimed that the district court erred in denying his motion for JNOV. JNOV is only appropriate in “rare circumstances” such as when there is insufficient evidence for the jury verdict. Huss v. State, No. 16-2145, 2019 WL 478794, at *2 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 6, 2019); Smith v. Iowa State Univ. of Sci. & Tech., 851 N.W.2d 1, 18 (Iowa 2014).

Here, the court found that Steven did not present developed arguments or cite to relevant authority. Additionally, Steven did not raise many of the claims in the motion for a directed verdict and thus did not preserve review. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the JNOV motion. 

Motion for New Trial or Additur

Michele also appealed, claiming that the district court erred in denying her motion for a new trial or additur. Specifically, she asked for a new trial claiming that the jury made inconsistent findings with respect to five of her claims, namely abuse of process, interference with an inheritance, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and malicious prosecution.

Reviewing for inconsistencies as asserted in Michele’s motion, the court noted that the jury found in favor of Michele on six of her claims, all of which, required a finding of damage according to the court’s instructions. It was inconsistent for the jury to find in favor of Michele but not award damages. As such, the court remanded for a new trial on the claims of abuse of process, interference with an inheritance, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress.