Iowa’s trust and estate litigation attorneys are taking a second look at intentional interference with inheritance precedent law after the Iowa Court of Appeals recently upheld a million-dollar will challenge award that included $177K in punitive damages.
In Re Estate of Bowman (2017), the Court affirmed two sisters hijacked their brother’s inheritance by unduly influencing their father to write him out of the will. The Court further held the sisters’ conduct while interfering with their brother’s inheritance was willful and wanton as well.
This case presents a fusion of ordinary will dispute litigation and intentional tort law. Judges previously frowned upon awarding punitive damages in probate court but allowed for exemplary damage awards in civil action for plaintiffs who had exhausted all will challenge remedies prior.
It seems punitive damage awards during probate may trend as long as claimants follow the procedure and holdings found in Bowman.
Let’s examine what took place and look at why the Court ruled the way it did.
Sibling Rivalry Leads to an Alleged Hijacking of Inheritance
Cynthia, Wesley, and Trudy Bowman grew up on their father’s farm. Wesley worked the homestead with his father and his duties increased after his father began suffering from health problems in 1991.
Cynthia and Trudy eventually moved to other counties, leaving Wesley and their father to tend to the Bowman Farm.
After receiving bypass surgery in 1997, the father executed a living trust that conveyed equal shares of the Bowman estate to Wesley and Trudy with Cynthia disclaiming (opting not to take) because she felt she was already provided for.
The father modified his trust several times thereafter and eventually included Cynthia to take one-third of all personal property.
Over the next decade, the relationship among siblings deteriorated, and the father’s mental state declined.
According to court records, the father executed a power of attorney in 2008 that indicated an “agreement of any two children” would be binding.
Cynthia and Trudy allegedly colluded and used their power of attorney to move their father into a condo closer to their home where they could manage his finances and make medical decisions about his health.
Wesley’s relationship with his sisters continued to decline to an extent where neither Cynthia nor Trudy would communicate with their brother directly.
It was around this time the sisters reported to the police that their brother was a drug addict, had stolen farm machinery and had exploited his father both financially and emotionally—unverified facts that were all untrue and unbeknown to Cynthia and Trudy because neither sister was speaking to Wesley.
According to court testimony, the sisters also never told Wesley that his father had passed away nor did they inform him that their dad had disinherited him in 2011, information Wesley obtained only after receiving a probate notice from the courts.
Wesley believed his sisters convinced their father to set aside the living trust and persuaded him to execute a novel will that conveyed all estate assets to Cynthia and Trudy in equal parts, effectively hijacking his expected inheritance.
Procedural Maneuver Allows Probate Court to Award Punitive Damages
Wesley entered probate litigation one week after his father’s death, petitioning Judge Rosenbladt’s court to invalidate his father’s testamentary documents on the grounds of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity.
The brother further sought damages for tortious interference with a bequest, a procedural maneuver that allowed the probate court to recognize Wesley’s tortious interference claim as an independent cause of action distinct from the will contest.
Pleading his case in this manner allowed Wesley to use the evidence presented in the will dispute to prove up the elements of his tortious interference action—expectancy, tortious act, intentional wrongdoing, causation and damages.
According to Wesley’s estate and trust dispute attorney, precedent for such procedure was established in holdings found in the Supreme Court of Iowa’s review of Huffey v. Lea (1992).
The probate court ultimately ruled in Wesley’s favor. Rosenbladt set aside the will, and the jury awarded the brother over one million dollars in damages on both claims as follows:
- $1.1 Million (50% of the Bowman Estate)
- $296K (Special Damages)
- $178K (Punitive Damages)
Court of Appeals Upholds Interference of Inheritance Award
Cynthia and Trudy appealed the decision to the Iowa Court of Appeals, claiming Judge Rosenbladt should have granted summary judgment in their favor because Wesley’s evidence did not support the jury verdicts.
Concerning Testamentary Capacity…
In Judge M. Tabor’s comprehensive and lengthy opinion, the Court affirmed Wesley held the burden to establish his father lacked testamentary capacity “at the exact time of the making of the will” under the Gruis Doctrine of 1973.
Court records revealed the brother proved his father’s sound mind gradually weakened over time, but he failed to offer qualified witness testimony to attest to his father’s “mental state” during the will signing ceremony in 2011.
Tabor accordingly held Judge Rosenbladt should have dismissed Wesley’s lack of testamentary capacity claim; however, according to the Court, Rosenbladt did not err when setting aside the will on the grounds of undue influence.
Concerning Undue Influence…
During trial, Judge Rosenbladt dismissed the sisters’ motion for a judgment notwithstanding (JNOV–an overruling of a jury decision) on Wesley’s undue influence award and on contention that Wesley produced insufficient evidence to prove they “unduly influence [their father] for the purpose of procuring improper favor.”
Cynthia and Trudy unfortunately only focused their appeal on the testamentary capacity challenge and offered the Court with no argument or citation to contest errs in the jury’s undue influence award.
Judge Tabor held the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled in Hyler v. Garner (1996) that this Court may not “speculate on the arguments [the sisters] might have made” and then “search for legal authority and comb the record for facts” to support the appellants’ undue influence claim.
The Court therefore had to review the evidence presented at trial to find whether Wesley’s favorable undue influence jury verdict should stand.
According to Tabor, sufficient proof in the trial court’s records supported an undue influence ruling, and Judge Rosenbladt’s dismissal of the sisters’ JNOV motion complied with precedent found In the Matter of the Estate of Bayer (1998).
The Court further upheld this ruling during its opinion of Wesley’s tortious interference with inheritance award.
Concerning Tortious Interference…
At trial, Judge Rosenbladt instructed the jury that Wesley had to prove the following to prevail in his tortious interference claim:
- He expected to inherit from his father’s will.
- Cynthia and Trudy knew Wesley would take from the estate upon their father’s death.
- The sisters “intentionally and improperly” interfered with Wesley’s expected inheritance by way of defamation and undue influence.
- But for Cynthia and Trudy’s interference, their brother would have received an inheritance.
- Wesley suffered an economic loss.
On the first two inquiries, the Court affirmed a preponderance of the evidence showed Wesley obviously expected to take from his father’s estate and his sisters knew it.
Undue Influence Inquiry: Wesley argued his sisters enjoyed a confidential relationship with their father after obtaining a power of attorney and moving their father far away so they can control his finances.
Judge Tabor affirmed neither sister disputed the presence of a confidential relationship on appeal, and because so, “a suspicion, not a presumption, of undue influence” arises.
Court records further revealed conclusive evidence indicating both Cynthia and Trudy were active in their father’s estate planning. Hence, the Court concluded the jury was correct in finding the sisters unduly influenced their father to revoke his living trust and execute a new will in its place.
Defamation Inquiry: Tabor likewise held the trial jury correctly assumed the sisters acted in bad faith and defamed their brother after Cynthia and Trudy made calumnious police reports about their brother’s alleged behavior without first verifying if the facts were accurate.
With both undue influence and defamation present, Tabor affirmed the sisters intentionally and improperly interfered with Wesley’s expected inheritance.
Concerning Punitive Damages…
Cynthia and Trudy’s appeal argued Wesley failed to prove either sister participated in “willful and wanton” behavior to support a finding for punitive damages.
The Court held, under Gibson v. ITT Hartford (2001), the “willful and wanton” element in Wesley’s evidence must have established his sisters’ conduct “constituted actual or legal malice” with actual malice proven by evidence of “ill-will, personal spite, or hatred” towards Wesley.
Tabor affirmed Wesley successfully showed at trial that his sisters made a “callous, intentional decision” to not inform him about their father’s death or warn him that he lost his inheritance.
And according to the Court, this conduct, along with evidence demonstrating Cynthia and Trudy intentionally notified authorities about Wesley’s alleged wrongdoings without concern as to whether the information was true, satisfied the “actual malice” element and called for both sisters to pay punitive damages.