Winning an undue influence lawsuit may seem straightforward, but it’s not easy. Some will challengers spend weeks collecting undue influence evidence only to find out later that insufficient proof exists to win the case.
You should know that Iowa courts assume testators understand their estate planning documents before signing them and appreciate how the provisions in such documents will affect their heirs.
Probate courts will accordingly presume the deceased did not execute his or her will under undue influence unless “clear and convincing evidence” can show otherwise.
So, before you file your undue influence claim, wouldn’t it be nice to know if your case evidence can defeat the above-mentioned legal presumptions?
The courts assume no undue influence took place unless evidence indicates otherwise.
This leads us to the challenge at hand….
What evidence will prove my undue influence claim is valid?
To answer this question, you must determine if the facts surrounding your particular circumstances can deliver a powerful “YES” to the following four inquires:
- Was the decedent a vulnerable individual?
The elderly and individuals who need dependent care are sometimes highly vulnerable to undue influence. But keep in mind the courts will assume such folks were invulnerable testators unless proven otherwise.
Evidence of Cognitive Impairment
When deciding Matkovich vs. Matkovich (2013), the Court of Appeals in Iowa allowed evidence of the testator’s mental condition to “shed light on her state of mind” while engaging with an alleged influencer, indicating that proof of physical disability or cognitive impairment may reveal an increase in one’s vulnerability to undue influence.
The Court likewise found that it’s often easier to “coach” vulnerable people into disposing their assets to benefit a wrongdoer “compared to [those] who hold sound minds.”
Evidence of a physical or mental impairment may therefore exhibit a decedent held certain vulnerabilities to undue influence before death.
Proof of Prior Relationship
A person’s capacity to act without constraint may likewise be vulnerable in particular social or confidential relationships formed with family members or third parties.
Accordingly, you can prove vulnerability (and shift the presumption of undue influence onto the defendant) by offering evidence indicating the testator was engaged in one of three types of “dominating” confidential relationships before death:
- Fiduciary—an individual who held legal duties to provide the decedent with the highest standard of care and loyalty and to act in his or her best interests (i.e. power of attorney, trustee, agent, lawyer).
- Dependent—often caregivers or close family members who took care of testator’s daily needs.
- Dominant-Submissive—a risky confidential relationship that predisposed the decedent to undue influence. (i.e. living with an abuser to fulfill emotional or personal needs; living with an intimidator who created dependency via fear of abandonment, threat or physical or emotional harm).
Evidence of cognitive impairment or prior confidential relationship can help you prove vulnerability.
- Did the alleged wrongdoer hold apparent authority over the testator?
Probate courts in Iowa require challengers who assert undue influence claims to show the type of authority the alleged wrongdoer held over the decedent.
When one thinks of apparent authority, fiduciaries, agents, power of attorneys, guardians, trustees and lawyers first come to mind.
However, in Oehler (1962), The Supreme Court of Iowa hinted that apparent authority “may exist although there is no fiduciary relation,” but, “[does] exist when one person has gained the confidence of another and purports to act or advise with the other’s interest in mind,” and, “[apparent authority] is the presence of a dominant influence.”
You may therefore find evidence of apparent authority in non-fiduciary settings by exploring the decedent’s social affairs before death to determine if an alleged influencer dominated the relationship.
- Testator—Family Member
- Senior—Doctor or Nurse
- Testator—any person who he or she trusts to take care of his or her daily needs.
Apparent authority arises in relationships when one person maintains a dominant presence over a testator’s personal, financial, or social affairs.
- Did the alleged influencer actively seek an improper favor from the victim?
Chief Justice McGiverin of the Iowa Supreme Court held In the Matter of Estate of Bayer (1998), “when a confidential relationship exists between a testator and a beneficiary and that beneficiary [actively] participates in either the preparation or execution of the testator’s contested will… a suspicion of undue influence arises.”
Active participation proof is therefore more than just showing the alleged influencer accompanied the testator to the will signing ceremony. Will challengers should likewise possess clear and convincing evidence that affirms the wrongdoer used his or her apparent authority to pressure, coerce or persuade the testator into altering the estate planning documents to benefit the influencer.
Wrongdoers often execute a variety of unethical tactics to get what they want from vulnerable testators. The following list covers, but is not limited to, the types of tactic evidence you could collect to establish active participation by an influencer:
- Evidence proving the wrongdoer controlled the testator’s free will by withholding caregiver services—medication, meals, social interaction, personal hygiene care, sleep, access to outside family members—unless the victim complied with the influencer’s ambitions.
- Testimony affirming the wrongdoer intimidated, pressured or coerced the victim repeatedly.
- Evidence that shows the influencer controlled the decedent’s finances and that the victim depended on the wrongdoer’s performance.
- Proof that the influencer exploited the victim’s personal affection or good will to inherit from the estate.
Your active participation and tactics evidence should likewise coincide with your apparent authority proof to affirm the estate planning documents in controversy ignores the free will of the testator and only reflects the choices of the influencer.
Wrongdoers who use their apparent authority to pressure, coerce or persuade testators into giving them estate assets or property after death engage in active participation.
- Did the alleged influencer receive an undue profit (equity) from the testator?
Finally, a good undue influence case holds evidence that demonstrates the will brought about an inequitable result—if the end result was fair, then the undue influence claim fails.
In Burkhalter v. Burkhalter (2013), the Supreme Court of Iowa cited In re Ankeny’s Estate (1947) to clarify the fourth and final element in establishing a prima facie case of undue influence…“a result [must clearly show] the effects of undue influence.”
According to the Ankeny doctrine, will challengers must prove the ‘inequity element’ to satisfy the legal theory of causation.
Finding evidence of an unjust result is usually easy when testators executed earlier testamentary documents that divided the estate equally among heirs but later modified their will just before death, leaving everything to just one person (the influencer).
Inequitable result proof may consist of:
- Documents affirming a hijacking of inheritance took place.
- Records showing inequitable inter vivos gift transfers occurred before the testator’s death.
- Proof of a complete disinheritance without sufficient reason.
If the wrongdoer did not profit from the undue influence, your claim will fail.
Remember too that your evidence must be admissible or the courts will dismiss it (that means no opinions or speculation).