On November 2nd, 2022, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the matter of the Estate of Helen M. Halter, Deceased, v. Kim Barber, Appellant.
The case involves the Estate of Helen M. Halter. Judy Conn is Helen’s daughter in law, and she was married to Bruce Halter until his death in 1982. Judy’s son, Chad Halter, is Helen Halter’s only living grandchild. The other parties in the case are Phyllis Green, who is Helen Halter’s half-sister and the daughter of Phyllis, Kim Barber.
In May of 2013, Helen Halter executed her Last Will and Testament, a General Power of Attorney and a Combined Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney. The Will provided specific bequests of $5,000 each to Phyllis Green, Kim Barber, and a church, with the residue going into a Trust for the benefit of her grandchild, Chad Halter. Judy Conn was appointed Executor and Jeff Conn was appointed as the Successor. The General Power of Attorney appointed Judy and Jeff as the attorneys in fact and the Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney appointed Judy as the health power of attorney, with Jeff as the Successor. In 2017 and 2018, Helen Halter’s bank alerted Judy to a possible mailing scam and Judy took steps to prevent a theft of Helen’s funds.
In 2019, Phyllis Green became aware that Judy held Helen Halter’s Power of Attorney. In September of 2019, Phyllis Green and Kim Barber took Helen Halter to her attorney’s office to discuss changing the Power of Attorney forms and the Will. Helen’s attorney met in private with Helen and confirmed that Helen did not want to make any changes to her Power of Attorney or her Last Will and Testament. Later on, the same day, Phyllis Green was added to Helen Halter’s checking and saving accounts with a joint right of survivorship. The bank did not explain to Helen the implications of Phyllis Green being a joint owner of the accounts. In the following months, Phyllis Green proceeded to draft a number of checks which Helen signed which were payable to Phyllis Green and Kim Barber. In addition, there were a significant number of checks which were payable to cash.
A month later a cognitive assessment was performed on Helen by her primary care physician finding that she suffered from moderate cognitive impairment and concluding that she was not able to make financial or other legal decisions on her own. Shortly thereafter, Phyllis Green arranged for the locks to be changed on Helen’s home.
In February of 2020, Kim Barber was added to Helen’s checking account with a joint right of survivorship. In August of 2020, Kim Barber moved Helen from her Newton home to Barber’s home in Marshalltown. Kim Barber did not communicate the move to Judy Conn. After the move, Judy Conn was only able to speak to Halter once over the phone. Following the move, several more checks were issued from Helen’s account payable to Barber or to cash totaling $1,800.
Barber met with her personal attorney to get advice on how to terminate Helen’s Powers of Attorney. A new Power of Attorney was drafted naming Kim Barber as Agent and Phyllis Green as Successor.
In September of 2020, Helen met with her physician along with Kim Barber. The physician advised Kim Barber that Helen’s condition placed her at a risk of being exploited financially. Kim Barber disagreed with the diagnosis, and on September 14, 2020, Kim Barber was added to Helen’s savings account with a Joint Right of Survivorship.
After learning of the revocation of the Power of Attorney, Judy Conn petitioned to open a guardianship and conservatorship and applied for a temporary injunction. The injunction was issued on September 18, 2022, and was served on Kim Barber. The injunction prohibited Barber from engaging in any financial transactions or non-emergency medical decisions on Helen’s behalf until further order of the Court.
Phyllis Green passed away in November of 2020, and Helen passed away in December of 2020. Her Death Certificate indicated viral pneumonia caused by Covid-19 as the immediate cause of death with dementia listed as another significant condition contributing to her death.
A Probate Administration was opened for Helen and Judy was appointed as Executor. She requested that the Court order that the bank accounts were estate property. At the hearing, Kim Barber agreed that she stood in a confidential or fiduciary relationship with Helen at the time she gained access to Helen’s accounts. The Court in its ruling agreed, which triggered the presumption of undue influence and fraud regarding the transfers. The Court declared that Kim Barber failed to meet her burden to rebut the presumptions, and that the accounts were the sole property of the estate.
The Court of Appeals stated that “a transfer to a Grantee standing in a confidential or fiduciary relationship to the Grantor is presumptively fraudulent and therefore presumptively the product of undue influence.” The Court went on to say that such transfer is voidable. Based on the confidential and/or fiduciary relationship, the Court went on to state that “the burden of proof shifted to Barber to negate a presumption of undue influence by clear, convincing and satisfactory evidence.” The Court went on to state that “the rule for rebutting the presumption of undue influence arising from a confidential relationship… requires the grantee of a transaction to prove by clear, satisfactory, and convincing evidence that the grantee acted in good faith throughout the transaction and the grantor acted freely, intelligently, and voluntarily.” The Court further stated that “evidence is clear, convincing and satisfactory when there is no serious or substantial uncertainty about the conclusion to be drawn from it.” The Court noted that the rebutting parties’ “burden is a heavy one.”
The Court found that the actions of Kim Barber could not be described as acting in good faith and that “no evidence was presented by Barber that Helen made the transfers freely, voluntarily and intelligently.” In addition, no evidence was presented showing that the transferor had the benefit of independent advice regarding the transfers. The Court finally stated that the transfers conflicted with Helen’s plan for “the disposition of her Estate to her only remaining grandson.” The Court declared that Kim Barber failed to meet her burden to rebut the presumption of undue influence and affirmed the decision of the District Court.