Iowa Court Upholds Intentional Interference with a Bequest Judgment

July 27, 2018
Kristine A. Tidgren

On July 18, 2018, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court judgment declaring a testator’s will invalid on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence and finding her son liable for intentional tortious interference with a bequest. This case again highlights a tort that made news last year when a brother won $1.5 million in damages against his sisters for turning their parents against him.

Background

The testator had three children, two sons and a daughter. She died in 2015, having executed two wills – one in 2010 and one in 2011. The 2010 will divided her estate equally among her three children. The 2011 will left most of her estate (including all of her farm ground) to her son Wayne.

Shortly after the 2011 will was drafted, the other two children petitioned for the appointment of a guardian and conservator for their mother. In response, Wayne had a codicil to the 2011 drafted that would reimburse him “at the rate of $1,500 per hour” if anyone contested the will. His mother signed the codicil two days before the guardianship hearing and granted Wayne power of attorney over her affairs the day before the hearing.

At the hearing, medical evidence showed that the mother had “moderate to severe” Alzheimer’s. The court ordered Wayne’s brother to serve as the mother’s guardian and named a bank as her conservator.

After the mother’s death, Wayne’s brother filed a petition to probate the 2010 will, and the court admitted the will to probate. Two months later, Wayne filed a petition to set aside the probate of the 2010 will and to declare that the 2011 will should be administered and probated. The sister and her children filed a counterclaim against Wayne for tortious interference with a bequest.

Trial Court Ruling

The trial court ruled that the 2011 will was invalid due to undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity. The court also found that Wayne was liable to his sister and her children for tortious interference with a bequest. The brother was ordered to pay all estate attorney fees from his share of the estate.

Appeal

On appeal, Wayne argued that the trial court merely found that he exerted undue influence over his mother and that a finding of undue influence was insufficient to support liability for intentional interference with a bequest.  

The court agreed that undue influence was not coextensive with tortious interference, but found that the trial court’s detailed factual findings were equivalent to a finding of “fraud, duress, or other tortious means” necessary to prove a claim of intentional interference with a bequest. The court ruled that substantial evidence supported the finding, including the following:

  • Four days before the drafting of the 2011 will, Wayne and his mother called a lawyer telling him that the brother was guilty of breaking into the mother’s safe and stealing several items. The lawyer was asked to draft a new will in response.
  • The lawyer primarily spoke with Wayne, and he drafted the new will. The mother signed it about a month after the phone call.
  • The sheriff found no evidence of a theft.
  • Wayne called the sheriff to investigate his sister and prohibit her from taking his mother to events.
  • Wayne was “very aggressive” and “very outspoken” in directing his mother’s communications.

The court found that the court properly awarded damages to the sister and her children in the form of attorney fees for the intentional interference with an inheritance claim.

The court next turned to the $47,880.93 in attorney fees that the trial court awarded to the executor. The court upheld the award, finding that the record was replete with evidence of “bad faith” on the part of Wayne. The court explained that a trial court is granted considerable discretion to tax fees under IRC § 633.315 to an objector acting in bad faith.

In affirming the trial court’s conclusion that the 2011 will was invalid due to lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence, the court stated, “No useful purpose would be served by summarizing the extensive evidence supporting the district court’s findings.”  

Conclusion

To prevail on a claim of intentional interference with an inheritance, a party need show “fraud,  duress,  or  other  tortious  means  intentionally  used  by  the alleged  wrongdoer  in  depriving  another from  receiving  from  a  third  person  an inheritance or gift.” Huffey v. Lea, 491 N.W.2d 518, 521 (Iowa 1992). The tort offers relief if there is no valid will to fall back upon or where, as here, the intended beneficiary suffers other damages, such as attorney fees. With several recent Iowa litigants having success with this tort at the appellate level, we may see an increase in its use. Unfortunately, there's never a shortage of intra-family litigation.

The case was In the Matter of the Estate of Erickson, No. 17-0430 (Iowa Ct. App. July 18, 2018).

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