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Farmland Inheritance: Intentional Interference Judgement Upheld in Court - September 4, 2018

On July 18, 2018, in the case In the Matter of Estate of Lois B. Erickson the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court finding of invalidity of a will based on undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity, and found one party liable for tortious interference with a bequest.


What Happened

The case concerned Lois Erickson, an elderly woman with three adult children, Wayne Erickson, Alan Erickson, and Mary Ann Ward.  Wayne farmed, and Alan and Mary Ann did not.  In a will dated 2010, Ms. Erickson divided her estate, which mostly consisted of farmland, equally among her three children.  Her 2011 will left nearly all her estate to Wayne. 


Not long after the 2011 will was drafted, Alan and Mary Ann sought the appointment of a guardian and conservator for their mother.  When Wayne learned of this, he made an amendment to the 2011 will drafted that said anyone who contested the 2011 will “shall reimburse my son, Wayne D. Erickson, at the rate of $1,500.00 per hour.”  Lois signed the amendment two days before the guardian/conservatorship hearing.


The physician who evaluated Lois for the guardian/conservatorship hearing diagnosed her with “moderate to severe” Alzheimer’s.  The court thus ordered Alan to serve as his mother’s guardian.


After Lois passed away, Alan filed a petition to probate the 2010 will.  Two months later, Wayne asserted that the 2011 will should be the will administered and probated. 


Trial Court Findings

After a bench trial, the judge found the 2011 will to be invalid based on undue influence by Wayne and lack of testamentary capacity by Lois.  The court also found Wayne liable for tortious interference with Lois’ bequest. 


Appellate Court Findings

Wayne appealed, arguing primarily that he should not be liable for intentional interference with a bequest, and that the 2011 will was not invalid based on lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.


The appellate court found that tortious interference does not mean the same thing as undue influence.  Tortious interference takes more:


The necessary proof in an action for intentional interference with a bequest or devise focuses on the fraud, duress, or other tortious means intentionally used by the alleged wrongdoer in depriving another from receiving from a third person an inheritance or gift1.


The following facts particularly indicated Wayne had intentionally interfered with his mother’s bequest:

  1. Four days before the 2011 will was drafted, Wayne and Lois called Lois’ attorney, told him Alan had broken into Lois’ safe and stolen several items, and told him to draft a new will cutting Alan out of any share of the estate.
  2. Wayne did nearly all of the talking on the phone call to the attorney.  Lois hardly spoke.  
  3. The Boone County Sheriff investigated the alleged theft by Alan but found no evidence of it.
  4. The new 2011 will left all the farm land to Wayne and the rest of the estate to Wayne and Mary Ann.
  5. After the 2011 will was signed, Wayne called the police to investigate Mary Ann for stealing from Lois. 
  6. Law enforcement found no evidence of any theft by Mary Ann. Anytime law enforcement tried to speak to Lois, Wayne interrupted and spoke for Lois.
  7. Alan and Mary Ann both testified that Wayne told Lois what to say when they spoke to her by phone. 


The appellate court upheld Wayne’s payment of damages in the form of the attorney fees incurred in defending the action filed by Wayne as his punishment for intentionally interfering.


The appellate court also found the 2011 will was invalid based upon Wayne’s undue influence over Lois and the fact that Lois lacked testamentary capacity when she executed the will.  Regarding Lois’ testamentary capacity, the court cited Lois’ physician’s diagnosis of severe Alzheimer’s disease and the physician’s view that Lois could not make any major decisions on her own.


As to undue influence, the court again cited Lois’ medical diagnosis.  The court found the record was “replete” with evidence that Wayne had the opportunity and motivation to unduly gain Lois’ favor to obtain the farm ground he wanted.  The court also cited the dramatic difference between the 2010 and 2011 wills as evidence of Wayne’s undue influence.


Lessons

Last year another case made headlines when a brother won roughly $1.5 million in damages where the Iowa Court of Appeals found undue influence and found that the non-farming sisters intentionally interfered in their father’s bequest of farm land.

We believe Iowa courts will see more of these intentional interference with farm land cases in coming years given the aged and aging population of Iowa’s farm land owners.  A recent Iowa State University survey found that 60% of Iowa’s farm land is owned by people 65 years or older and 35% of Iowa farm land is owned by people 75 years or older2. With so much farm land set to change hands over the next few years, there are bound to be disputes between the farming sibling(s) and the non-farming sibling(s).

 

Huffey v. Lea, 491 N.W.2d 518, 521 (Iowa 1992).

Zhang, W., A. Plastina, and W. Sawadgo. 2018. “Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure Survey 1982–2017: A Thirty-five Year Perspective.” Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, CARD working paper #18-WP 580.



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