On August 3, 2022, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued an opinion In the Matter of the Estate of Sam Vernon Elsen, deceased, Michelle Lynn Davila, Plaintiff and Chad Michael Elsen, Plaintiff-Appellant, vs. Emily Jean Elsen-Cox, individually and as Trustee of the Sam Vernon Elsen Revocable Trust and Executor of the Estate of Sam Vernon Elsen, Defendant-Appellee.
Sam Vernon Elsen was born in 1946. He was the father of three children, all with his first wife Marjorie. Sam adopted Michelle who was Marjorie’s daughter from a prior relationship. Emily and Chad were born out of the marriage of Sam and Marjorie. Chad was employed by the farming operation on a full-time basis. Emily worked on the family farm operation on a part-time basis. Chad has a lengthy history of substance abuse. Chad was arrested in 2003 for manufacturing Methamphetamine. In 2007 Chad was indited on Federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and also tested positive for meth during pretrial release.
After Chad was arrested for the various drug charges in 2012 Sam drafted his own Will and Trust. The Will left all his personal property to Emily and Emily was named executor of the estate. The Will also provided that Sam intentionally did not leave anything for Michelle or Chad. The residue of his Estate was left to the Sam Vernon Elsen Revocable Trust. Sam is both the Settler and Trustee of the Trust. Emily is named as the Successor Trustee of the Trust. After payment of debts and taxes, the residue of the trust was to be distributed to Emily. The Trust document states that the Trustor intentionally leaves nothing to Michelle and Chad.
After Chad’s release from jail, Sam terminated him from the family business and evicted him from his home.
The relationship between Sam and Chad continued to sour. In 2013 Sam and Marjorie moved to have Chad involuntarily committed for substance abuse. Chad was also convicted of assaulting Sam. Chad was convicted of harassing Sam and 2014 and 2015. The court issued a non-contact order preventing Chad from contacting Sam.
As the years passed Sam’s cognitive abilities declined. Emily reported signs of dementia to a nurse practitioner in 2011. Medication was prescribed in 2012 to slow the process. Sam retired from farming in the spring of 2013 and moved to an assisted living facility between 2015 and 2017. Sam passed away in November of 2018. The value of his estate was worth approximately 3 million dollars.
Chad and Michelle filed an action to contest the will and trust. The court denied the claim and dismissed the petition following the bench trial.
The Court of Appeals noted the overlap between the cause of action undue influence and tortious interference with an inheritance by quoting the following language from Youngblut v. Youngblut, 945 N.W.2d 25, 36-37 (Iowa 2020):
To prevail either on and undue influence claim or a tortious-interference claim where the plaintiff is challenging conduct leading to a new will, the plaintiff must prove an outsider overcame the testator’s independent will. If the will reflects the true wishes of the testator, then no claim should lie, either for undue influence or tortious interference. In short, the two claims involve” a substantial overlap’ of proof and witnesses” because a central issue is common to both claims.
The court set out the following grounds necessary to find undue influence:
- Sam was susceptible to undue influence;
- Emily had an opportunity to exercise undue influence and effect the wrongful purpose;
- Emily had a disposition to influence unduly to procure an improper favor; and
- The result, reflected in the will, was clearly the effect of undue influence.
The court noted that Chad had the burden to prove undue influence by a preponderance of the evidence, and that the fourth item requires clear proof.
The court found sufficient evidence that Emily had the opportunity to unduly influence Sam as well as some indications that Emily would be inclined to exert some influence. However, the court found that Sam was not very susceptible to undue influence, physically or mentally and on that basis the court found that Chad failed to show that Sam executed the Will as a clear result of Emily’s efforts. The court noted that the district court found that Sam was engaged in farming through the 2012 season, acted as an executor of his father’s estate from 2012 to 2015 and was a bookkeeper for his fire department through 2013.
The Court of Appeals found that Chad failed to meet his burden of proof for his tortious-interference claim due to the court’s finding that Emily did not unduly influence Sam’s Will or Trust.