New Trends ln Probate Litigation: Iowa’s Rising Tortious Interference With Inheritance Claims

We’ve been hearing a lot of tortious interference with inheritance news coming from the Iowa Court of Appeals over the last three years—an indicator that this relatively unfamiliar area of estate law is trending.
In 2019 alone, the Court ruled in six cases where beneficiaries had brought actionable claims after probate closed to hold wrongdoers responsible for intentionally looting their expected inheritance.
One of those rulings included a summary judgment review against a tortious interference plaintiff who claimed his family interfered and prevented him from receiving assets from his aunt and uncle’s estate.
The Arnold siblings of Hancock County, Wilbur, Evelyn, Roy and Bruce, inherited their father’s estate after he died. Wilbur and Roy thereafter farmed the bequeathed land along with Roy’s children who included son William.
Evelyn was the first of the four siblings to pass away. Her will left William over $100K in cash of which the nephew never contested. During probate, however, William allegedly found an unsigned codicil (amendment) where his aunt had bequeathed forty acres of land to the nephew.
Uncle Wilbur, who passed away twenty years after Evelyn, held a more complex estate plan that included a signed will and over six amendments.
William did not inherit from Wilbur’s testamentary documents—the uncle’s second codicil completely disinherited the nephew by transferring William’s interests to his brother Lance. Wilbur’s fourth amendment further increased Lance’s share to ninety percent.
Nephew Claims Family Interfered with Expected Inheritance
William sued soon after Wilbur’s estate planning instruments entered probate, claiming his uncle, cousins and three brothers unduly influenced Wilbur to exclude him from the will. The nephew further argued the defendants intentionally committed “fraud, deceit, defamation, duress and other malicious conduct” with intent to tortiously interfere with an expected inheritance from Evelyn’s estate.
The lower court dismissed William’s undue influence claim in summary judgment after finding Wilbur was not susceptible to undue influence and that the nephew failed to prove the “end result was the clear effect of undue influence.”
William’s tortious interference with inheritance claim also failed, according to court records, since no definite evidence showed the defendants intentionally collaborated to disinherit William.
Appeals Court Affirms Lower Court’s Ruling
In the nephew’s summary judgment appeal, William claimed he presented the fact finders with enough evidence to send his case to trial.
Judge M. Tabor of the Iowa Court of Appeals held that William would have had to prove the following to move his tortious interference claim forward:
  1. The nephew expected to receive Evelyn’s bequest.
  1. The defendants knew William was expecting a bequest from his aunt.
  1. The defendants intentionally and improperly engaged in undue influence or tortious conduct to interfere with William’s expected bequest.
  1. But for the defendant’s interference, William would have received his inheritance with reasonable certainty; and
  1. William suffered damages from losing his inheritance.
Judge Tabor then acknowledged the nephew and his wife reasonably expected to receive farmland from Evelyn after the aunt expressly informed them about the bequest prior to 1992.
The unsigned codicil added to Evelyn’s 1992 testamentary documents also revealed the aunt’s intent to distribute property to her nephew and created “an expectancy” in William to inherit, according to the Court.
However, the nephew’s claim that his uncle unduly influenced Evelyn and tortiously interfered with the expected bequest from Evelyn was completely speculative, Judge Tabor ruled, since William never produced evidence to support this argument.
The Court further held the nephew failed at the summary judgment hearing to show causation within “a reasonable degree of certainty” that but for his uncle interfering with his expected inheritance, he would have received Evelyn’s farmland bequest upon her death.
Tabor’s opinion thus confirmed the district court’s ruling and rejected William’s appeal for insufficient evidence.
In the above lawsuit, William lost his tortious interference with inheritance claim during probate litigation proceedings. But let’s imagine for a moment the disappointed nephew declined to pursue a will contest and instead selectively sued his uncle, cousins or brothers individually in tort action after probate closed—would the courts have allowed this?
Not likely, according to a Supreme Court of Iowa decision handed last June when one brother tried to sue another after bypassing probate.
Harold and Leonard Youngblut were surviving heirs to an 1800-acre farm in Black Hawk County of which entered probate after their parent’s death in 2014. Harold continuously worked the land for many decades with his brother Leonard; however, the latter left the family business in 1998 after a sibling dispute.
Harold also became president of their parent’s corporate farm in 2002, around the time his parents executed a will that left their controlling shares to Harold and the residual to their other children.
Over the next ten years, Leonard had openly accused his brother of mismanaging the family business, humiliated Harold in emails, and threatened his brother with legal action.
Harold moved his mother and father into an assisted living home in retaliation, but in 2014, Harold shockingly learned his terminally ill parents modified their estate plan and added a “no-contest” clause to their testamentary documents.
Under the new will, Leonard would sell his corporate farm shares to Harold for $1 and in return receive expensive land that Harold was supposed to take, and if the brother contested the bequest, he would receive nothing.
Harold believed his brother unduly influenced his parents, but he allegedly decided not to challenge his parent’s testamentary documents in probate because of the no contest clause.
Brother Bypasses Probate and Sues for Tortious Interference
Eight days after probate closed however, Harold sued his siblings for tortious interference with an inheritance, alleging they engaged in conduct designed “to defeat their parents’ Estate Plan” and “substituted [the old will with] their own testamentary plan for their own benefit.”
Leonard moved for summary judgment, asserting the law bars Harold from bringing tortious interference action because the claimant had failed to contest the will in probate prior. The lower court denied the motion, and at trial the court found for Harold awarding him both general and punitive damages.
Supreme Court of Iowa Overrules Probate Court’s Tortious Interference Dismissal
Upon high court scrutiny, Justice Mansfield first noted that almost three decades had passed since the Supreme Court of Iowa had ruled on a tortious interference with inheritance claim. [Huffey v. Lea (Iowa 1992)]
The Court then agreed with Leonard’s initial arguments, confirming that important changes in probate law have taken place since Huffy, notably in the Third Restatement Torts–Liability for Economic Harm, which limits a plaintiff’s ability to pursue a tortious interference claim when the interested party “had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.”
Mansfield also found underlying policy considerations since Huffey hold plaintiffs may only bring intentional tortious interference claims “when a probate proceeding cannot provide an adequate remedy” and that such a lawsuit “should not be a de facto substitute for a will contest.”
Finally, the Court held state legislators specifically empowered the judiciary through Iowa Probate Code to settle estate dispute controversies such as undue influence in probate court, and as such, tort actions brought later that include will contest issues should not become a “blatant substitute” to probate proceedings.
Harold could have effectively brought a will challenge during probate to settle the undue influence claims against his siblings, according to the Court. But for whatever his reason for doing so, Harold chose to “substitute a will challenge for a tortious interference lawsuit with probate issues.”
In Mansfield’s opinion, Probate Code, legislative intent, recent public policy and modern precedent law bars Harold’s tortious interference with inheritance claim because the plaintiff knowingly tried to “bypass probate” and also failed to bring the action “in conjunction with a timely will contest.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.