Iowa Probate Litigation has blogged extensively about undue influence and how the Iowa courts can set aside a will or trust when it finds another person forced the testator into disinheriting an heir or beneficiary.
But understanding how undue influence works is only beneficial if you can apply the theory to prove its existence in court and persuade the fact finders rule in your favor—estate dispute attorneys recognize that this is not an easy task.
Let’s examine Iowa Probate Litigation’s guide for proving undue influence in Iowa and discover how our seasoned will challenge counselors help victims influence the courts to return their inheritances.
Proper Undue Influence Claims
The law presumes the testator was free from undue influence when he/she executed the will. To overcome this presumption, you must prove up the elements of undue influence found in Iowa Civil Jury Instruction 2700.4 and drawn from In re Estate of Huston (Iowa 1947) and In re Estate of Davenport (Iowa 1984) by establishing one of three arguments:
- The testator was in a trusting relationship with the defendant which made him/her vulnerable to the defendant’s undue influence, a vulnerability that the defendant seized upon when he/she used his/her apparent authority to solicit a modification in the testator’s will of which disinherited the plaintiff after the testator’s death.
- The defendant knew the testator lacked testamentary capacity to change the will; yet, he/she exploited the testator’s vulnerable unsound mind after procuring an improper bequest from the estate of which transferred assets to the defendant instead of the plaintiff after the testator’s death.
- The testator depended on the defendant which made him/her susceptible to the defendant’s undue influence; the defendant exploited such vulnerability after procuring changes to the will of which disinherited the plaintiff when the testator passed away.
Clear Example of Undue Influence
Mary lives with her daughter Alice and depends on Alice for everyday home care needs. Alice hates her sister Francis, and a few weeks before her mother’s death, Alice takes Mary to the family estate attorney and instructs her mother to disinherit Francis under threat that if she doesn’t do so, she’ll stop giving her care. Mary complies only because she depends on Alice to survive.
Now, Alice stands to take everything after Mary dies—but how can Francis show Alice’s undue influence when Mary’s will enters probate?
Proving Undue Influence in Iowa
Francis can prove Alice unduly influenced her mother into disinheriting her either by:
- shifting the burden of proof to Alice, compelling her to prove to the court that undue influence did not take place; or,
- providing the court with direct evidence showing the will reflects Alice’s intent and not Mary’s.
Francis’ best approach would be shifting the burden to Alice because it’s often difficult for a defendant who held “dominant authority” over a testator and who took from the will to prove their conduct never influenced the deceased.
Shifting the Burden in Undue Influence Lawsuits
Let’s examine how Francis’ will contest attorney can shift the burden of proof to Alice in probate court—fact finders will presume the defendant engaged in undue influence when challengers prove three truths:
- Confidential Relationship. A confidential relationship in-fact arises when another person exerts their superior education, skill or competence to build a moral, social, private or personal relationship with the testator. Confidential relationship at-law will occur when an individual assumes a fiduciary position over the testator and may arise when a blood relationship exists between the defendant and the decedent. In both situations, the testator must have been vulnerable to the defendant’s dominant influence.
- Active Participation. The defendant must have “actively participated” in procuring an improper favor from the deceased and intentionally exploited his/her dominant influence over the testator to receive it.
- Inequity. The defendant must have actually taken an inequitable benefit from the will.
Here, Francis will produce physical evidence that shows Alice was Mary’s blood relative who provided Mary with care giving services while she was alive. Francis’ attorney will then offer witness testimony that proves Alice intentionally arranged for Mary’s estate planning attorney to alter her will.
Witnesses may further confirm Alice actively engaged in soliciting an improper favor from her mother after driving Mary to the will-drafting meeting and using her dominant authority from the confidential caregiver-recipient relationship to convince Mary to disinherit Francis.
Finally, Francis will show that Mary’s compliance led to an unfair result where her inheritance was reduced from fifty percent to zero after Alice took her part under the will.
Upon hearing Mary’s evidence, the court will most likely presume Alice exercised undue influence over Mary, causing her to modify the will in controversy. The court will then compel Alice’s estate dispute defense attorney to show undue influence did not occur—not a simple task after considering Francis’ evidence.
Proving Direct Undue Influence
If on the other hand the courts rule proof of a blood relationship between Mary and Alice is not enough to show a confidential relationship existed between the two parties; Francis will need to establish Alice’s undue influence through direct circumstantial evidence.
- Previous Will Conflict—the present testamentary documents contradict the decedent’s intentions expressed in an earlier, properly executed will. If Francis can show the courts that Mary’s previous will treated both daughters equally, but the amended document contradicts Mary’s former intent, the fact finders may presume that Alice unduly influenced Mary.
- Unnatural Disinheritance—an unusual severance of bequests from the natural objects of the decedent’s bounty (i.e. children). Some courts may find it unnatural for Mary to leave Francis nothing and to bequest Alice the entire estate without good cause.
- Innate Control of the Testator—the defendant exploited the deceased’s dependency on him/her to control changes in the will. Mary relied on Alice for her daily home care needs, a circumstance that may show Alice held the power to control the fate of the will.
- Testamentary Capacity Leading to Undue Influence—a testator’s weak mental and physical condition made him/her vulnerable to the undue influence of another. If medical evidence proves Mary’s health was fragile, Francis can contend that a weak Mary gave in to Alice’s pressure to disinherit her daughter.
- Defiling the Testator’s Mind—an heir’s immediate and irrational disinheritance arising from a corruption of the testator’s mind. Francis can offer testimony showing Alice has hated her for years and then infer that her mother’s sudden change of heart about her inheritance without a rational explanation could only mean Alice corrupted Mary’s mind with lies about her to influence the modification in the will.
Remember that the more direct circumstantial evidence you produce, the easier you’ll influence jurors to rule in your favor.