Most courts find rendering undue influence verdicts uncomfortable simply because when the judiciary sets aside a will, it effectively nullifies the deceased’s estate planning intent.
The Iowa Supreme Court nonetheless has confirmed interested parties need not produce “clear and convincing” evidence of undue influence to win their lawsuits—a mere “preponderance of the evidence” is sufficient when proving up the elements in their claims.
Will challengers must however “clearly” reveal the wrongdoer influenced the testator into planning or altering his or her will to the benefit of the influencer, according to a new opinion handed down from the Iowa Supreme Court.
So what does scrutinizing undue influence evidence at the current “heightened substantive standard” mean in layman’s terms?
The doctrine will also show us how the heightened judicial review does not differ from the state’s current civil court rules of evidence.
Father Alters Trust
Louis Burkhalter executed a revocable trust in 1980, naming his son William Burkhalter as the primary beneficiary.
Louis modified his trust twice after 1980, including William’s wife, Cynthia, and his son, Matthew, as beneficiaries years later.
However, six days before his death in 2007, Luis amended the trust for the last time, adding his son Steven Burkhalter and splitting the trust’s benefits equally between Steven and William (effectively disinheriting Cynthia and Matthew).
Son Helps Dad Make Modifications
Steven traveled from California to Iowa after learning his father’s caretaker transferred the ninety-eight-year-old Louis to an emergency elder care facility. It was there Steven testified that he and his father discussed altering the trust.
According to court records, Louis directed Steven to contact the Trustee and his estate planning attorney immediately to modify the trust to reflect a 50-50 split between Steven and William.
Louis’ lawyer and the bank Trustee met with Louis the next day, and they verified the testator indeed wanted to share the trust’s assets equally between the two sons. Louis’ estate planner accordingly revised the trust the next day.
Beneficiary Claims Foul Play
In 2008, six months after Louis died, William filed a will contest, alleging Steven unduly influenced his father into changing his testamentary documents and that Louis lacked the capacity to execute the modification.
Under a directed verdict, the district court found Steven did not unduly influence his father into altering the trust and that Louis was of sound mind when he executed the revisions just before he died.
Marshaling Iowa Civil Jury Instruction
District court Judge James Carter gave the jury marshaled instructions during the trial—William can only prevail on his claim of undue influence if he proves by a preponderance of the evidence that ALL the following circumstances existed around the time Louis changed his trust:
- Louis was susceptible to the type of influence described in instruction 4.
- Steven had the opportunity to exercise such influence over Louis.
- Steven was inclined to influence for purposes of gaining favor.
- Steven assumed a position of dominance over Louis’s decisions to the extent that the decision to change the trust provisions was Steven’s decision rather than Louis’s decision.
- The changes made to the trust provisions were CLEARLY the result of the foregoing circumstances.
William objected to the way Judge Carter combined (marshaled) Iowa Civil Jury Instruction 2700.4, particularly in how he applied the word “clearly” in jury instruction number five.
According to the objection, the term “clearly” heightened William’s burden to prove undue influence existed to more than just a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
William appealed after receiving an unfavorable verdict and argued Judge Carter’s jury instruction was improper.
Appeals Court Reverses Verdict
The Court of Appeals of Iowa held in 2013 Iowa’s Uniform Civil Jury Instruction regarding will contest and undue influence does not include five parts, and by marshaling subpart four and five of 2700.4, Judge Carter had added “another layer necessary to prove undue influence.”
Judge Carter therefore erred by “erroneously, prejudicially, and incurably [instructing] the jury as to undue influence,” according to the Court, “which was sufficiently prejudicial to warrant reversal… [and] remand for a new trial.”
Steven thereafter appealed the Court’s reversal decision to the state’s highest court.
Supreme Court of Iowa Grants Certiorari
In his twenty-one page Supreme Court opinion, Justice Appel first noted the judiciary continues to “struggle with the concept of undue influence,” and he held the current tendency in undue influence litigation is to persuade the fact finders to overlook the intent and free will of the testator and instead explore the evidence presented “based on their own values or senses of propriety.”
The Court likewise affirmed it rejected the “heightened” standard of proof requirement for undue influence claims In re Estate of Todd (1998), holding interested parties may prove their claims through a “preponderance of the evidence.”
Appel further held “clear and convincing evidence” disclaimers in jury instructions are likewise erroneous and not permissible.
Heightened Substantive vs. Clear and Convincing Standard
The Court affirmed however that preponderance of the evidence rules for undue influence lawsuits in Iowa naturally convey “heightened substantive” norms when scrutinizing such claims.
To explain Justice Appel’s holding—when claimants “clearly” prove up all the elements of undue influence via preponderance of the evidence, the will challenger naturally meets heightened substantive standards of law.
Justice Appel further recognized that South Dakota and Nebraska also follow Iowa’s heightened substantive approach for measuring undue influence evidence.
According to the Court, Judge Carter adding the word “clearly” to his marshaled jury instructions complied with the long accepted heightened substantive norms found in Iowa case law precedent, and this “one word” did not infer the fact finders in this case applied a clear and convincing standard when measuring the undue influence evidence before them.
By including the term “clearly” into the jury instructions, Appel wrote, the lower court protected Louis’ intent because the term forced the jury “to filter out unduly speculative evidence” and compelled them to focus on the deceased’s free will and sound mind at the time he executed the modifications.
The heightened substantive doctrine likewise remained within its narrow scope in this case because the jury did nothing more than apply the higher standard to weed out “specious undue influence claims.”
The Supreme Court accordingly ordered the Court of Appeals’ ruling against Steven vacated, effectively reinstating his inheritance.
The Supreme Court of Iowa in Burkhalter tried to untangle the inconsistencies found in the lower court’s application of undue evidence rules.
According to modern precedent, claimants must now satisfy a “heightened substantive” standard of which the law entombs within the preponderance of the evidence presented when proving the elements of undue influence in court.
Some estate dispute attorneys believe the Burkhalter doctrine is too similar to the forbidden “clear and convincing” standard, and the Supreme Court of the United States may dismiss the legal theory one day. But for now, undue influence advocates in Iowa will practice the modern evidence rule moving forward.