In this article...

In this case, we will talk about:

  • What is undue influence?
  • When does the undue influence need to exist?
  • How the Iowa courts have treated this issue in recent years
  • Elements of undue influence
  • How the Burkhalter case influenced undue influence cases in Iowa
  • Is all influence “undue?”
  • Is unequal distribution evidence of undue influence?

In this case, we will talk about:

  • What is undue influence?
  • When does the undue influence need to exist?
  • How the Iowa courts have treated this issue in recent years
  • Elements of undue influence
  • How the Burkhalter case influenced undue influence cases in Iowa
  • Is all influence “undue?”
  • Is unequal distribution evidence of undue influence?

What is Undue Influence?

A person is not allowed to exert undue influence over the drafter of a will or trust. Undue influence means a person substitutes his or her intentions for those of a person making the will, making the will reflect the wishes of the influencer. While it can be related to lack of testamentary capacity, it is not the same thing. In Iowa, if another heir or beneficiary suspects that someone may have exerted undue influence on the person who died (the decedent), they may bring an action in probate court.

When does Undue Influence Need to Exist?

This undue influence must be present at the time the will is signed. The influencing person does not need to be present, but his or her influence must still be working in the mind of the testator when the will is signed.

Iowa Courts’ Decisions on Undue Influence Cases

Courts are uncomfortable about the issue of undue influence. On one hand, they have not been willing to completely do away with the undue influence cause of action; on the other, the standard for showing undue influence is sometimes unclear.

While undue influence may protect the rights of elderly and sick people, it also risks reversing their true intent if they really did intend to make the contested change. It risks the court substituting its own thoughts and opinions for that of the testator. Some courts have called for there to be a heightened burden of proof in these cases, something greater than a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not undue influence occurred). Motive and opportunity alone are insufficient to show undue influence.

Elements of undue influence and the Burkhalter case.

In 2013 in the case of Burkhalter v. Burkhalter resolved the standard of proof plaintiffs must meet to show undue influence. In Burkhalter, district court presented a jury instruction listing the elements of undue influence. The instruction read:

“In order for (plaintiff) to prevail on his claim of undue influence, he must prove by a preponderance of evidence that at or about the time the trust provisions were changed all of the following circumstances existed:

  1. (The Decedent) was susceptible to the type of influence described in Paragraph 4 of this instruction.
  2. (The Defendant) Had the opportunity to exercise such influence over the decedent.
  3. The Defendant was inclined to influence decedent for purposes of gaining favor.
  4. The Defendant assumed a position of dominance over the decedent’s decision to the extent that the decision to change the trust provisions was his decision rather than the decedent.
  5. The changes made to the trust provisions were clearly the result of the foregoing circumstances.

The Plaintiff argued that the fifth point was erroneous, as it proposed a clear and convincing standard rather than preponderance of the evidence. In cases where the standard is clear and convincing evidence, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing proof that the advantage was procured through undue influence. After the case was found in favor of the Defendant, the case eventually made it to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In general Iowa courts had used the preponderance of the evidence standard. Burkhalter found that there is a heightened standard in undue influence cases when it comes to causation. The Defendant must have clearly caused the change in the will or trust. This is in line with prior cases which held a requirement to “clearly” show the effects of undue influence, while maintaining a preponderance of the evidence standard for the other factors. This ensures a Plaintiff must prove the Defendant’s actions dominated the motives of the testator in executing the will, equivalent to “moral coercion.” The testator is not available to testify, an the clearly standard helps protect the testator’s free will.

Is all influence “undue?”

Not all influence is undue influence. The court has found most people assert some influence over others, through friendship or familial duties, which may have a tangential effect on their receiving a testamentary benefit. Undue influence must dominate the motives of the testator. It must be the equivalent to “moral coercion.” The Plaintiff must show a continuing and persistent effort to unduly influence the testator to destroy the testator’s free will.

Is a very unequal distribution evidence of undue influence?

It is also generally insufficient for a plaintiff to argue inequality of distribution under the will as evidence of undue influence. It also is not enough for a testator to be physically or mentally weak, although this evidence may be admissible to show susceptibility to undue influence.

In the last few years, Iowa courts have approved a higher standard for finding undue influence. While many want to contest a will in cases where one child spent significant time around a parent, or similar situations, it should be done after considering the time, difficulty, and costs of the action. Most evidence in these cases is circumstantial, and these cases are difficult to prove. For more information, and if you do want assistance in an undue influence case, feel free to call us at 630-327-6666.


Posted 
January 29, 2021
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