Friday, December 20, 2013

Iowa Supreme Court "Clearly" Provided Some Guidance on Undue Influence for Will Contests

In a ruling issued today by the Iowa Supreme Court, the Court provided some clarity on undue influence cases in Iowa. Family patriarch, Louis Burkhalter, had at least two sons, William and Steven.  Louis' revocable trust initially provided that son William, then his wife and son, would be the beneficiaries of the trust. After the death of William, his wife and his son, the trust would be distributed to Louis' heirs.  As Louis, who was now 98 years young, become to decline in health, his other son, Steven, traveled back from California and talked to dad about his trust.  Following their conversation, the trust officer and attorney jumped into play and a new trust was signed dividing the trust assets equally between William and Steven.  Good thing for Steven as dear ole dad then died 6 days later.

Half wasn't enough for William, so the attorney-gloves came out and the challenges for undue influence and interference with an inheritance were made by William.  The four elements for undue influence in Iowa are: (1)  the person making the will/trust was susceptible to undue influence; (2) the defendant had the opportunity to exercise influence; (3) the defendant was inclined to influence to gain improper favor; and (4) the result was clearly the result of the undue influence.

Following an extensive summary of the undue influence history in Iowa, as well as the rest of the country, the Court was wrangling with the standard required to be successful on this type of a will contest.  Back in the day, it used to require a "clear and convincing" standard.  That made it really hard to show undue influence as those types of cases are challenging enough.  So the Iowa Supreme Court eventually changed it to "preponderance of evidence" in a 1998 ruling in Estate of Todd, 585 N.W.2d 273 (Iowa 1998).  Basically, that means you have to show more than half of the evidence in your favor and not such high level of "clear and convincing".  The highest level of proof is saved for criminal cases and his the old famous "beyond a reasonable doubt".  As a result, the range starts at beyond a reasonable doubt, then clear and convincing, then preponderance of evidence, then you lose.  (Forgive me any legal-purists and professors.)

Well, now with today's ruling that standard has been "fudged" a bit.  The Court focused on the term "clearly" in the last element of the claim.  It essentially moves the standard of proof from a preponderance of evidence to a little higher to require a showing that the influence "clearly" was the result of the person's actions.  They didn't go on to say they are moving back to the "clear and convincing" standard, but they moved the hurdle a little bit higher with what they are calling a hybrid approach.  As a result, what can be a tough case just got a little bit tougher.

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