A valid will or trust in Iowa must demonstrate that the author acted autonomously during the estate planning and execution stages.
Sometimes, however, an individual close to the drafter may have intentionally or inadvertently displaced his/her desire to inherit over the author’s original intent to distribute assets equally among heirs.
Such undue influence provides grounds for interested parties to contest a testamentary document’s validity when it enters probate or trust administration.
Most inheritance hijacking victims have many questions after discovering undue influence took place—why does asserting authority over a vulnerable elder during estate planning give rise to harmful and tortious conduct, and what can I do after a wrongdoer has acquired a part of my legacy?
Reading the Q&A below may help you discover whether the arrangements found in a loved one’s will or trust express someone else’s intent and how undue influence litigation deals with the wrongdoing. With this knowledge in hand, you can better decide whether estate dispute litigation will be needed for taking back your inheritance.
Did the testator establish a new relationship with someone before death?
Seniors often experience loneliness after retiring and may seek companionship from someone outside the family. You should therefore keep a watchful eye for potential undue influence whenever an older loved one enters into a new relationship with a stranger.
Such prudence is especially necessary after discovering the decedent changed his/her will or trust to include provisions for outsiders such as caregivers, boyfriends, girlfriends, or distant relatives.
Does the new will or trust include extreme or unusual changes?
Most people plan their estates just before retiring and stick with the arrangements found in their testamentary documents until death—never modifying them.
It is however common for testators to revise their will or trust to include unborn heirs or to make slight amendments as their estate grows. Contrarily, undue influence often arises when testators draft new testamentary documents that make radical or disciplinary changes to the provisions found in an earlier estate plan.
Did the deceased stop communicating with you before death?
When asserting undue influence to obtain an improper favor from the estate, wrongdoers will usually cut off vulnerable seniors from interacting with their families. This practice allows the tortious behavior to continue undetected until after the elder passes away.
You may therefore want to investigate whether a senior loved one changed his/her will or trust if he/she stops speaking with you just after meeting someone new.
Do you know how to win an undue influence lawsuit?
To prevail at trial, your estate dispute attorney must successfully prove up the four elements of undue influence in Iowa:
- The decedent was a vulnerable individual.
- The defendant held apparent authority over the deceased.
- The influencer actively sought an improper favor from the decedent.
- The alleged wrongdoer received an undue profit (equity) from the estate.
You may establish the elements above via accumulation of evidence (instead of single fact presentation) of which may include testimony from relatives, neighbors, healthcare workers and specialists. The courts will further accept material proof such as social media posts, bank statements, videos and written communications made between the defendant and the deceased.
Did the deceased maintain a “confidential relationship” with someone before passing away?
People who formed confidential relationships with testators and thereafter stand to take from the estate during probate/trust administration must prove to the courts that undue influence did not occur whenever interested parties bring complaints against them.
Also known as “shifting the burden” onto the defendant, claimants who successfully demonstrate a confidential relationship occurred will have an easier time proving their case, since such a burden is extremely hard to overcome.
The courts consistently presume that the deceased’s fiduciaries held a confidential relationship. However, non-fiduciary people who maintained exclusive access to the decedent during his/her life (caregivers, business partners, relatives and friends) may have formed confidential relationships as well.
Do you know the timeline for resolving undue influence claims?
Will or trust challenges with grounds of undue influence are essentially civil lawsuits, and depending on the case’s complexity, these estate disputes usually take more than a year to resolve.
The following timeline may offer you a clearer picture of why undue influence litigation is a lengthy process:
- A loved one passes away.
- You grieve.
- The courts accept the decedent’s testamentary documents and assign an executor or trustee to administer his/her estate.
- The assigned fiduciary notifies you about your pending inheritance and sends you a copy of the will or trust.
- After reviewing the decedent’s testamentary documents, you learn estate property and assets have gone missing or you notice that you’re receiving less than expected from the estate.
- You immediately suspect undue influence after reading Iowa Probate Litigation’s estate dispute blog posts.
- You (and other beneficiaries if relevant) retain an Iowa will and trust dispute attorney to help you take back the hijacked inheritance.
- Your undue influence litigator sues in the proper Iowa district court.
- Your case enters discovery, and your counsel works hard to settle with the estate.
- The lawsuit heads to trial if neither party reaches an agreement.
Do you hold standing to bring undue influence litigation?
Iowa estate law only allows “interested parties” to assert undue influence claims against a will or trust. So, just because you didn’t inherit doesn’t necessarily mean you can challenge the estate—the courts often offer interested-party standing to the deceased’s immediate successors (children, spouses) and to the beneficiaries named in the admitted testamentary documents.
However, creditors and unnamed third parties may likewise file an estate dispute if they hold a valid undue influence claim against the decedent’s assets.
Does your undue influence claim fall within Iowa’s statute of limitations?
Undue influence lawsuits in Iowa have filing date expirations.
The state’s statute of limitations will bar you from bringing undue influence litigation when 120 days have passed after the executor/trustee publishes a second notice of probate/trust administration in the local newspaper or 30 days after you received an official notice in the mail.
Example: An executor sent you a probate notice, which you accepted exactly 45 days before discovering an undue influence wrongdoing. Iowa’s statute of limitations accordingly will bar your recovery because you failed to make a prompt claim—you therefore must move fast whenever bringing estate dispute litigation.
Did the alleged influencer receive “undue equity” under the will or trust?
Estate law precedent holds juries may consider undue influence claims only if the defendant received or stands to receive a “substantial benefit” from the estate. This means the influencer’s taking must have been unduly profitable enough to disenfranchise the claimant’s expected inheritance.
The courts accordingly will examine the evidence presented and case circumstances in their totality when scrutinizing the defendant’s alleged undue equity interest extent.
Do you hold evidence of undue influence occurring before the decedent passed away?
Probate litigators may produce diverse evidence in court to raise undue influence suspicion for the jury to consider. Although every lawsuit is unique, ordinary undue influence evidence often includes:
- Establishing the decedent depended on the defendant.
- Showing the defendant isolated the deceased from speaking with friends or family.
- Proving the wrongdoer used the deceased’s financial assets for personal gain.
- Revealing the defendant subjected the deceased to psychological abuse, threats or intimidation before passing away.
- Showing the testator held a diminished mental capacity to prevent the undue influence.