In this article...
When your loved ones pass away, the last thing you want to think about is the distribution of their property. What could be even worse is if there is a suspicion that someone close to you has wrongfully influenced this distribution. This article will cover contesting wills in 2021 as well as the tortious interference with inheritance claim associated with these will contests.
We will address the following:
- What A Will Contest Is
- What The Grounds Are For Testing A Will
- Lack Of Capacity
- Undue Influence
- When You Can File A Will Contest
- What To Expect From A Will Contest Suit
- Tortious Interference With Inheritance Claims
- Updates To Bringing Tortious Interference With Inheritance Claims
What Is A Will Contest?
A will contest action interrupts the probate of a decedent’s estate to determine the validity of a will. If someone who is or thinks they should be receiving something under the will (typically family and friends of the decedent) believes the last will and testament of the decedent wasn’t a true and accurate indication of their wishes, it may be necessary to contest the will. To learn more about will contests, read our article on Iowa Will Contests Explained.
What Are The Grounds For Contesting A Will In Iowa?
While there are a number of different grounds for contesting a will in Iowa, the two most common grounds are lack of capacity and undue influence. These claims must be brought at the later of 1) four months after the second publication of notice in the newspaper, or 2) one month after being mailed notice to the person. These rules create some urgency, making it important to not wait even a few months to determine your rights under the will, and hire an attorney to investigate and potentially contest a will. Read our accompanying article to learn more about Who Can Contest A Will?
Lack Of Capacity
If someone doesn’t have the mental capacity to execute a will, the will could be challenged as an invalid document. For the most part, the level of competency needed to sign a will is lower than the level needed to sign a legal contract. A person has the legal capacity to execute a will if they:
- Know a will is being made;
- Know the kind and extent of their property;
- Can identify their natural heirs; and
- Know now they want to distribute their property.
If this can be established, the person’s will is enforceable. Some factors often considered by courts, but don’t themselves establish lack of testamentary capacity include old age, physical failings, memory failings, and the diagnosis of a mental disease such as dementia or Alzheimer's. Read more about reasons a will can be contested in Iowa in our Lack of Testamentary Capacity in Iowa Will Contests article.
Generally speaking, undue influence refers to the substitution of desires and wishes of a testator for those of the will’s beneficiary. In other words, someone is influencing the person making the will to give them something they otherwise wouldn’t receive. Typically, this is a close relatives, friend or healthcare provider that manipulates or defrauds and elderly or ailing person by declaring them the beneficiary of certain properties or assets through their will.
While all cases involving undue influence are different, some factors considered typically include:
- The decedent's poor physical condition;
- The decedent's poor mental condition;
- The decedent’s intelligence;
- A change in distribution from a prior will;
- Involvement of the influencer with the decedent in drafting or executing the will.
When Can You File A Will Contest?
If you are considering contesting a will, you must act promptly to protect your claim. Generally, a will contest in Iowa must be filed the latter of 1. four months after publication of the second notice in a local newspaper or 2. one month after mailing notice to the party.
What To Expect From The Will Contest Suit?
Within that time period, you must file a complaint with the probate court. From there, the executor will be notified and they will have an opportunity to defend the will in question at trial. Following the trial, the probate judge will issue a verdict regarding the will.
If the will is found to be valid, the assets will be distributed in accordance with the will. If all or part of the will is found to be invalid, the portion ruled invalid will be distributed either in accordance with a prior will that wasn’t influenced or will be distributed via intestate succession.
Tortious Interference With Inheritance In Iowa
Since 1978, Iowa has recognized a claim called “tortious interference with inheritance.” This claim arises in situations where someone believes they were unlawfully cut out of an inheritance they had expected. If you can prove that someone illegally interfered with the expected inheritance, you can recover compensatory and punitive damages. This claim is in addition to the will contest.
Intentional interference with inheritance claims must meet the following elements to be successful:
- The plaintiff had an expectancy with which the defendant interfered;
- The interference was tortious;
- Reasonable certainty exists that, but for the defendant’s tortious interference, the expectancy would have been fulfilled; and
- There are damages.
The first element can be difficult to prove. If there is an earlier will or trust that shows that the plaintiff was to benefit, that can be used as evidence. Additionally, draft wills/trusts, notes, emails, letters or phone calls where the decedent indicates that they intend the plaintiff to benefit from their will or trust can also be used as evidence to establish this element.
The second element, tortious interference, addresses the defendant’s state of mind. The plaintiff must do more than show the defendant interfered with their inheritance. They must also show that the interference by the defendant was wrong in some way. This often comes in the form of duress, fraud, defamation, abusing fiduciary duty, forgery, suppression or alteration. If the defendant has done any of this, the element is met.
The final issue to address is damages, specifically compensatory damages. This is typically the value of the property that the plaintiff would have received if it wasn’t for the defendant’s actions. In addition to this, emotional distress damages are recoverable and even punitive damages in certain circumstances. If the plaintiff had previously challenged the will or trust in court and then it’s proven that the defendant interfered with the will or trust, the plaintiff can also recover their attorney fees from that prior court proceeding.
Generally, a person who wants to make this claim must first challenge the will or trust through the traditional probate proceedings unless they are unavailable. Some courts have suggested that the claim isn’t available at all if methods exist to contest the will or trust in probate court. In these circumstances, some courts hold that probate court is the person’s only remedy, whether they are successful in probate court or not.
Updates To Bringing Tortious Interference With Inheritance Claims
Following the June 2020 ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the 40+ year precedent, ruling that you must bring a claim for tortious interference during the will contest period and join with the undue influence claim. This places a serious time constraint on plaintiffs to determine what the will provides, determine if there was wrong-doing, retain legal counsel, and have counsel to an investigation to determine if a legal claim should be brought.
There are a couple exceptions to this. First, if the claim is brought from some sort of wrongful action. If someone was forced to change the beneficiary of an insurance policy, and it was discovered after the fact, a case could still get brought as it is separate from the will contest claims.
While Iowa has made efforts to limit the ability to make these claims, they never the less should be considered in instances where you believe someone has interfered in a will. However, in order to bring a claim you must act quickly, within weeks, to prevent losing your ability to make a claim.