Son, As Primary Beneficiary Under His Mother’s Will, Did Not Unduly Influence Her

July 1, 2013 | Erika Eckley

Undue influence can occur when a person in a position of authority over another person uses that position to take advantage of that other person.  It is an equitable doctrine, and when it occurs in the context of an individual’s execution of their will, a court, using principles of equity, may invalidate the will as not being the product of the testator’s intent.  Undue influence is particularly prone to occur when the testator is susceptible to undue influence due to relationship, health, capacity, or other issues; someone had the opportunity to exercise undue influence on the testator and affect the outcome.

In this case, a married couple had three children: Bill, Carol, and John.  Upon the husband’s death, the surviving spouse inherited an undivided one-half interest in the “Home Place,” with the other undivided one-half interest passing to the three children. The children deeded their share back to their mother.  John, the youngest child, started running the farming operation at that time. He and his mother split the crop expenses and proceeds for more than the next 30 years.  During this time Mom purchased additional farm land, and allowed John to build a home on a 120-acre parcel, which became known as “John’s Place.”

In 1983, the mother revised her will to give some cash to her grandchildren and to give John’s Place to John. The remainder of the mother’s estate was to be equally divided among the three children. In February 2009, Mom revised her will.  Under the revised will, Mom deeded John’s Place to John and also left the entire farming operation to John.  The two other children were to split $50,000, which was the value that Mom placed on John’s Place.  This revised will was executed at a nursing home where Mom was staying after suffering a fall. Present with Mom at the time of the will’s execution were the attorney, two legal assistants, John and his wife.  At the will execution conference, Mom did express an understanding of the will’s effect and the value of her estate before she signed the will.  Mom died in March of 2009.

Several days after Mom’s death, John offered the will for probate.  His siblings, however, objected to the will’s probate.  They argued that the decedent was mentally incompetent at the time the will was revised, and that the revised will was the result of John’s undue influence. After a bench trial, the probate court denied the siblings’ request to set aside the will.

On appeal, the court affirmed the probate court’s order.  The court noted that John’s siblings had the burden to prove John’s undue influence over the Mom.  While, the evidence showed that a confidential relationship existed between John and his mother, the confidential relationship, by itself, did not establish the presence of undue influence.  The evidence did show, however, that the decedent did not look to John for guidance during execution of the will.  Mom also understood that she was giving more of her estate to John, and that she knew how much land she was giving to John.  Likewise, the court agreed that evidence presented from the decedent’s doctor showed the decedent did not lack testamentary capacity and that she was competent to understand and execute her will.  Thus, the siblings were unable to prove John’s undue influence over their mother or that their mother lacked the testamentary capacity to execute the revised will.  Matkovich v. Matkovitch, No. 3-296/12-1029, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 632 (Jun. 12, 2013).