In previous blog posts, we wrote about the presumption of undue influence in probate litigation. The presumption emerges when Will challengers successfully prove the defendant was in a confidential relationship with the deceased.
Confidential relationships defined under Iowa Case law extend to any situation where a person uses their family connection, influence, or superior training or knowledge to invoke trust from a weaker individual. The trust and confidence eventually reach a point where one party dominates the relationship, for good or bad.
The court’s definition implies that an influencer can be someone other than a fiduciary. Confidential relationships among parties can accordingly be social, domestic, or personal (i.e., caregiver-recipient, family, or member-disabled elder). And as such, where the trust originated from and how the two parties formed the confidential relationship is immaterial when proving undue influence in court.
Let’s examine confidential relationships and learn how defendants can keep their inheritances by successfully rebutting the presumption of undue influence in court.
When Influence from Confidential Relationships Becomes Undue?
Knowing the difference between influence and undue influence can become complicated. People in confidential relationships influence each other daily, and the law holds that influence is acceptable in certain situations.
Before considering whether undue influence caused the deceased to replace his/her intent with the intent of an influencer, the courts first examine whether a confidential relationship existed among the parties.
Fact finders thereafter scrutinize the parties’ conduct to discover how the dominant person in the confidential relationship influenced the weaker party. The court must further determine whether the influence was permissible under Iowa code and Will and Trust dispute case law.
The following fictional situations give us a better understanding of influencers in confidential relationships and their conduct:
- Third-Party Confidential Relationships: A caregiver uses his position of trust to influence an elderly care recipient unduly into modifying his estate plan. Here, the influencer isolates the senior victim and prevents his relatives from visiting or calling him. After three months of isolation, a beneficiary of the elder’s estate notices unusual withdrawal activity in the victim’s bank accounts. When asked about the money, the caregiver shows the beneficiary a power of attorney, giving the influencer the authority to handle the elder’s personal finances. The family later discovers their loved one had changed his Will and designated the caregiver as executor and beneficiary.
- Companion Confidential Relationship: Beneficiaries sue the girlfriend of a person who died of cancer, claiming she obtained gifts from the estate by improper means. Evidence shows the girlfriend knew the victim had terminal cancer and about his weak mental and physical condition. Evidence also showed the victim depended on the girlfriend’s care and feared her “always-near” presence would end if he disappointed her. Finally, the beneficiaries can show the girlfriend fired the victim’s long-standing estate planning attorney and hired new counsel to change the victim’s Will before passing away.
- Family Member Confidential Relationship: A mother was in a confidential relationship with her daughter for four years before passing away. The daughter admitted that the relationship was close and that she cared for her mother’s personal needs daily. The daughter also made healthcare decisions for her mother. And one year before passing away, the daughter placed the mother in an assisted living center closer to the daughter’s city of residence. The courts subsequently found that because the mother trusted in and relied upon the daughter, a jury may conclude a confidential relationship existed between the parties.
- Spousal Confidential Relationship: The Iowa Supreme Court of Iowa reviews a case where the deceased’s children sue the deceased’s spouse. After examining the record, the Court holds a jury cannot automatically assume that influence between spouses is undue since husbands and wives naturally influence each other. Accordingly, if the Court allowed said presumption to stand, third parties could bring undue influence action against every spouse who inherits from the other spouse’s estate.
- Fiduciary Confidential Relationship: An elder entrusts his investment banker to manage his estate property and assets. After a few years, the elder displayed a diminished mental capacity and depended on his fiduciary to provide him with a monthly income to pay his bills. Around this time, the banker coerced the elder into creating a Trust that named the banker as Trust administrator. The courts thereafter found the elder lacked the mental capacity to resist the banker’s coercion and that he drafted the Trust against his free will.
As you can see from the examples above, confidential relationships come in many forms. However, an influencer’s conduct becomes “undue” only when the party procures an inheritance unjustly, by force, or through coercion.
The Burden of Proof Explained
Challengers bear the burden of proving their undue influence claims in Will and Trust dispute litigation. However, when a plaintiff successfully shows that the defendant and the decedent shared a confidential relationship, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove undue influence did not occur.
Proving that one’s inheritance was not a product of undue influence is a heavy burden to overcome. According to holdings found In the Matter of the Estate of Todd, persons who enjoyed a confidential relationship with the deceased and later took from the estate must show “by a preponderance of the evidence” that their inheritance is valid.
Some minority courts in Iowa contrarily would prefer to change this to a higher “clear and convincing evidence” standard.
How Defendants Rebut Presumptions of Undue Influence in Court
Some probate litigators believe overcoming a presumption of undue influence means “proving a negative.” However, to defeat the heavy burden, the defendant must prove “affirmatively” that the deceased acted with free will when making the defendant a designated beneficiary.
Under Todd, the following evidence may show a testator or grantor indented the defendant to inherit from the estate:
- Testimony from the deceased’s estate planning attorney or witnesses.
- Proof that the decedent was independent and in control of his/her life before passing away.
- Attestations affirming the defendant did not handle the decedent’s finances or real property matters.
- Proof that the defendant did not isolate the decedent from friends, family, neighbors, or financial advisors.
- Showing that the deceased made transparent modifications to the Will or Trust and did not change his/her estate plan in secrecy.
- Revealing the new or modified Will or Trust did not differ significantly from the deceased’s prior testamentary plan.
- Establishing the deceased was of sound mind before passing away.
- Confirming the testator or grantor had valid reasons for disinheriting one or more family members.
- Showing the deceased “naturally” favored one family member over another.
- Proving the decedent openly and freely shared details of his/her confidential relationship and involvement with the defendant.
- Establishing that the defendant’s caregiving conduct was “dutiful” and thus warranted a reward.
Defendants who enjoyed confidential relationships with the deceased should therefore do more than try to prove the negative when refuting a presumption of undue influence. They should find affirmative proof demonstrating the testator or grantor legitimately intended them to take from the estate.