Important Defenses For Parties Wrongfully Accused Of Undue Influence

Modern probate case law in Iowa has made it easier for contestants to assert undue influence claims against testamentary documents presented in probate court. Decades ago, will and trust dispute plaintiffs bore the burden of proving that undue influence between the defendant and the decedent unequivocally took place–a heavy and difficult burden to meet. 

However, in 1998, when hearing IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF TODD, the Supreme Court of Iowa found that contestants may assert a presumption of undue influence onto defendants if the plaintiffs can establish a confidential relationship existed between the deceased and the recipient of a testamentary gift. 

According to the AARP of Iowa, this ruling has now become precedent law in Iowa, which has subsequently provoked rises in undue influence claims across the state.

By contrast, effective procedural, evidentiary, and substantive defenses are available for parties facing frivolous will dispute claims. Knowing how to assert these protections against undue influence allegations can accordingly save a legitimate inheritance from being voided in probate court.

Confidential Relationships and Undue Influence in a Nutshell

Undue influence occurs when a person in a close relationship with the deceased procures an improper gift from the estate through coercion, pressure, or persuasion.

The TODD Court defined “confidential relationships” in undue influence claims as any situation where the defendant applied his/her family connection, influence, superior training, or professional knowledge to invoke trust from the decedent.  

Accordingly, caregivers, family members, significant others, and close friends may have formed confidential relationships with legal consequences through their social, domestic, or personal contact with a deceased loved one. 

Confidential relationship formation is complete after the dominant party gains the trust of the weaker party. And according to TODD, once a will dispute contestant establishes the defendant’s potential for domination in the relationship, the burden moves to the defendant to prove that no influence took place and that his/her inheritance is legitimate.

Procedural Defenses Against Undue Influence Claims

Before considering available substantive defenses, parties defending undue influence claims may assert procedural tools during discovery that compel plaintiffs to reveal valuable evidence relating to their allegations. 

Under the Iowa Rules for Civil Procedure, a defendant may use Special Interrogatories, Requests for Admissions, and Requests for Production to obtain full disclosure of the undue influence claims made against him/her.

These procedural defense tools scrutinize the lawsuit and sometimes find grounds to have weak undue influence claims dismissed during pre-trial motions.  

Plaintiffs may occasionally object to requests for information and claim the court will discover the answers and evidence sought only after the burden switches to the defendant. However, such objections are prohibited because the law compels respondents to answer and produce the requested information in good faith. 

Substantive Defense: Evading the Presumption of Undue Influence

After asserting procedural defenses, wrongfully accused defendants in undue influence litigation should gather and present evidence showing Iowa’s confidential relationship doctrine does not apply to their case. 

Remember, a defendant will assume the presumption only if he/she held a potentially dominant position in the relationship between parties. Under TODD, the deceased must have depended on the defendant and been vulnerable to his/her coercion.

This reasoning implies that the presumption cannot shift to the defendant for bequeaths made by a decedent who was in good health at the time of the gifting and held the requisite mental capacity to authorize the transactions.  

Therefore, showing the courts that the will-maker was physically and mentally healthy when he/she drafted and executed the Will is the best defense for evading presumptions and burdens. If successful, only the contestant will hold the onus of proving the defendant wrongfully procured his/her inheritance.

Substantive Defense: Disproving the Presumption of Undue Influence

When the confident relationship doctrine applies, the burden moves to the defendant to prove the deceased, under his/her own “free will,” intended to bequeath the assets in controversy to the defendant.

The Supreme Court of Iowa in Burkhalter v. Burkhalter further ruled that defendants can prove the “intent and free will” of the deceased by showing through “clear and convincing evidence” that one or more of the following circumstances were present while the decedent was alive:

  • The grantor obtained independent legal advice before naming the defendant in the Will.
  • Defendant lacked an opportunity to influence the testator.
  • The will-maker understood the objects of his/her bounty and appreciated what he/she was doing.
  • Applied influence by the defendant was unintended and unforeseen.
  • The will-drafter held the mental capacity to resist the defendant’s influence.

Evidentiary Defenses for Evading or Disproving the Presumption

The courts in recent years have accepted the following evidence from defendants for avoiding or rebutting the presumption of undue influence:

  • Full Disclosure: Evidence establishing that the will-maker told his/her family, friends, and associates about the bequeath and his/her reasons for making it.
  • Defendant’s Character: Testimony revealing the defendant never participated in coercive or uninvited influential behavior during the relationship.
  • Will-Drafter’s Accessibility: Testimony establishing that the testator was never isolated and had communicated with friends and relatives regularly.
  • Nature of the Bequeath: Proof showing the will-drafter made the gift after discussion, reflection, and advice from legal counsel. 
  • Testamentary Capacity: Medical records and attorney notes proving that the testator held no mental impairments during the Will drafting and execution ceremonies.
  • Lack of Apprehension: Showing that the will-maker never feared the defendant and no acts of violence occurred during the relationship. 
  • Testator’s Personality: Evidence establishing the will-drafter held a strong character and was a stern, resolute, and practical person who could reject unwanted influence throughout his/her life.

Defending Estate Planning Undue Influence Claims 

Just because the deceased sought counsel from an estate planning attorney before naming the defendant as a beneficiary in his/her Will doesn’t mean that the decedent made the bequest from “full, free, and informed thought.”

According to BARBER V. POWELL,  proof of counsel alone does not establish the absence of influence. Evidence of legal advice obtained during estate planning must meet certain requisites before the defendant can use this fact to rebut the presumption of undue influence.

First, the defendant must have been absent during the deceased’s estate planning consultations and during the execution of the Will. The defendant must also not have retained the decedent’s estate planning attorney nor have instructed counsel on how to act on behalf of the will-drafter. 

In cases where the deceased has bequeathed most of his/her assets to the defendant, the evidence must show that the decedent’s lawyer discussed the financial and familial complications often accompanying such bequests. 

Finally, the estate planning attorney should possess notes that verify the will-drafter had discussed the bequeath with the beneficiaries whose inheritances would be impacted by the transaction.  

In Conclusion

While it’s now easier to bring will dispute litigation against a defendant, undue influence claims remain difficult to prove in probate court. 

And although innocent defendants sometimes face presumptions of undue influence after a loved one passes away, they need to know that procedural, evidentiary, and substantive defenses exist to help them hold onto their inheritances.

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