Iowa Supreme Court Broadly Interprets Elder Abuse Statute

February 24, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

In a 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court today ruled­­­ that a 69-year-old woman was a “vulnerable elder” under Iowa’s Elder Abuse statute because of her age.

Family Dispute

The case arose because a “do-it-yourself” estate planning strategy went awry. The mother put the title of her mobile home (where she lived) in her adult son’s name. She told him that when she died it was to be his inheritance. She continued to live in the mobile home and pay taxes on it. At the same time, the mother transferred title of a duplex she owned to her two daughters.

At some point, one of the mother’s daughters moved into the mobile home with her. At this point, the son demanded $35,000 from his mother to transfer title of the mobile home back to her. When she refused, the son attempted to evict the mother.

Elder Abuse Statute

In response, the mother filed a "petition for relief from elder abuse" against the son. The petition was filed under Iowa Code § 235F.2, which was enacted by the Iowa Legislature in 2014 to provide greater protection against financial and physical abuse to “vulnerable elders.” “Vulnerable elder” is defined in Iowa Code § 235F.1(17) as “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.”1

It is this definition that the Iowa Supreme Court agreed to interpret.

Is Being 60 or Older Enough?

The district court and the Iowa Court of Appeals both found that the son had committed elder abuse under the statute. Specifically they found that the mother was a “vulnerable elder,” unable to defend herself from her son’s financial exploitation, solely because of her age.  

In a case of first impression, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed. The Court stated that two elements must be proven to show that a person is entitled to protection under the statute:

  1. The person must be 60 years of age or older AND
  2. The person is unable to protect himself or herself from elder abuse because of (a) age, (b) a mental condition, or (c) a physical condition.

The Court held, “The statute makes it clear that if a person is sixty years or older and age alone, without a mental or physical condition, makes someone unable to protect himself or herself from elder abuse, then that person is a vulnerable elder.”

In finding that the mother’s age of 69 made her unable to protect herself from elder abuse, the Court relied on a “sparse” record, which included these six facts:

  1. The mother put all of her property in the names of her children during her lifetime, effectively wiping out her net worth.
  2. The mother was supposed to remain living in the mobile home when she transferred its title to the son.
  3. The mother lived in the mobile home without interference for some years.
  4. The son began posting eviction notices on the home only after the sister moved in.
  5. The son demanded a $35,000 payment from his unemployed mother if she wanted to stay in the mobile home.
  6. The mother testified, “It’s just worrisome. I’m tired of having these eviction notices. And I’m just too old for it.”

Based upon these facts, the Court found that the mother established that she was a vulnerable adult because of her age. “At her age,” the Court stated, the mother was unable to pay her son and was “concerned that she was too old to handle the eviction notices.” “In summary,” the Court continued, “[the son] took advantage of [the mother] due to her age and financial condition.”

Dissent Says There Should Be More

Three justices joined a dissenting opinion challenging the majority’s conclusion. The dissent quoted extensively from the dissenting justice of the Iowa Court of Appeals, who cautioned that the majority decision created a cause of action for persons outside the intended scope of the statute and unintended legal exposure for persons that happen to be in a dispute with someone over the age of sixty. The Iowa Supreme Court dissent went on to argue that the mother’s statement that she was “too old” to handle the eviction notices fell short of demonstrating that she was unable to protect herself because of her age. In fact, the dissent noted that the mother deftly short-circuited the forcible entry and detainer process by promptly seeking relief under the elder abuse statute. This matter, the dissent urged, was a property dispute that could have been worked out in an appropriate title proceeding. The dissent warned that the elder abuse law should not be unduly expanded because such a proceeding comes with great “potential for stigma." The dissent reasoned that elder abuse should remain a cause of action for persons who are unable to protect themselves “as a result of age,” not merely because they have attained a certain age.

We'll see if the legislature responds.

The case is Upon the Petition of Judith Ann Chapman, No. 15–0153 (Iowa Sup. Ct. Feb. 24, 2017).

1The statute allows a "vulnerable elder" to seek an order of protection from "elder abuse, which can include physical injury, sexual abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. The statute defines "financial exploitation" as "when a person stands in a position of trust or confidence with the vulnerable elder" and knowingly and by undue influence, deception, coercion, fraud, or extortion obtains control over or otherwise uses or diverts" the property of the vulnerable elder. The person in a position or trust or confidence can include a family member, a caretaker or a person in a confidential relationship with the elder. The legislature has specifically excluded bank employees, attorneys, insurance agents, and real estate brokers from the scope of this definition.