In Farmland Dispute, Iowa Supreme Court Says Father Not Vulnerable Elder

June 26, 2019 | Kristine A. Tidgren

On June 21, the Iowa Supreme Court held that three siblings failed to show that their father was a “vulnerable elder” subject to elder abuse by their brother and nephew. The siblings had argued that the brother and nephew unduly influenced their father to enter into a below-market-rate farmland lease and to gift land to them. The Court, however, ruled that the evidence supported a finding that the 85-year-old father’s number one priority in his estate plan was to maintain the family farming operation beyond his lifetime. Because the brother and nephew were the only family members who pursued farming as an occupation, the transactions at issue were merely a continuation or culmination of a plan to keep the farms within the family.

Is Age Enough to Prove “Vulnerable Elder”?

The first issue addressed in the case was the meaning of “vulnerable elder” in Iowa Code § 235F.1(17).  The siblings argued that the 85-year-old father was a vulnerable elder under the Iowa elder abuse statute merely because of his age. Prior to July 1, 2019, the Iowa statute defined “vulnerable elder” as “a person 60 years of age or older who is unable to protect himself or herself from elder abuse as a result of age or a mental or physical condition.”  Iowa Code § 235F.1(17).   In May of 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that under this definition, “if a person’s age makes a person unable to protect himself or herself from elder abuse, that person is a vulnerable elder.” No proof of a mental or physical condition was required, the Court held. In re Chapman, 890 N.W.2d 853 (Iowa 2017).

New Iowa Statute Now in Place

Concerned that this decision could lead to any bad dealing with someone over 60 potentially triggering an elder abuse claim, the Iowa Legislature responded. Effective July 1, 2019, the statute was modified to read, “Vulnerable elder-means a person sixty years of age or older who is unable to protect himself or herself from elder abuse as a result of age or a mental or physical condition or because of a personal circumstance which results in an increased risk of harm to the person.” This change was meant to clarify that being 60 years of age or older alone cannot make a person a “vulnerable elder.”  

Court Interprets Prior Statute to Say Age Alone is Not Enough

The Supreme Court in the present case—although interpreting the pre-July statute—still found that the father’s age alone could not support a finding that he was a vulnerable elder. The Court clarified that proof of an inability to self-protect must be established, in addition to age. Absent this proof, the court reasoned, the statute would encompass garden variety legal claims involving people age 60 or older. This result, the Court found, would exceed the scope of the statute and create unintended legal exposure for those in a dispute with someone over the age of 60. The Court noted that the Legislature’s recent amendment to the statute supported this interpretation of legislative intent in the original statute.

No Proof Father Was Vulnerable Elder Because of Declining Mental Health

The Court then reviewed the siblings’ alternative argument that their father was a vulnerable elder because he was unable to protect himself due to his declining mental health. Although a doctor had diagnosed the father with a decline in cognitive functioning, other evidence supported the district court’s finding that the father was not suffering from any mental health conditions during the relevant time. The father’s medical records showed that his memory and judgment were within normal limits, and his nursing home staff reported that he had clear comprehension. Additionally, the father was issued a driver’s license, managed his own finances, and served as the executor of his wife’s estate and a township trustee during the time at issue. The Court also noted that one of the siblings alleging that the father was incompetent, borrowed $3,000 from his father during that time. When asked how he could reconcile his claim that his father was a vulnerable elder with his decision to borrow the money, the sibling testified, “I don’t square that circle.  I don’t have to square that circle.”

The Court also looked to testimony from the father’s attorney that stated that the father was frustrated with his family’s “bickering over the farmland.” The father ultimately established a voluntary conservatorship for himself, with a bank acting as conservator, “to stop the children from bothering him regarding the farmland.” Based upon this evidence, the Court held that the district court properly ruled that the father was not a vulnerable elder. Based upon this finding, the Court did not have to consider whether financial exploitation had occurred.

Get a Plan in Place

This case illustrates common difficulties that sometimes arise in families when one sibling stays on the farm and other siblings leave. It bears repeating that those wanting to pass farmland to the on-farm heir and preserve the land in the family, must put that plan in writing at the earliest possible time. Although it can be difficult, clearly communicating this plan to all involved—while competent and living—could help ward off costly and divisive litigation after you’re gone.

The case is Struve v. Struve, No. 18–0316 (Iowa Sup. Ct. June 21, 2019).