Iowa Supreme Court upholds a will to resolve a legal dispute over a family farm

By: Rox Laird on October 25th, 2017

In the words of her attorney, Margaret Workman was “obsessed” with estate planning regarding the fate of the family’s 200-acre farm, creating and amending wills no fewer than 10 times.

Margaret, who died at the age of 89 in 2012, may rest in peace: Her dying wishes survived a legal challenge that made its way to the Iowa Supreme Court, which last week unanimously upheld the validity of the contested will in In the Matter of the Estate of Margaret E. Workman.

Dennis Workman, Margaret’s eldest son, challenged the will and a subsequent codicil that primarily benefitted Gary Workman, Dennis’ younger brother.

The estate plan reflected the fact that Gary had farmed the land with his parents for the previous 31 years. In fact, Margaret added a provision to her will explicitly stating that “[i]t may appear that I have provided more generously for my son, Gary, than my other two children, but in part it is in repayment for work and improvements he has done on our farmlands.”

Dennis sued to set aside the will on grounds that his brother had exercised undue influence over their mother through a “confidential relationship.” The jury returned a verdict finding that Gary had not exercised undue influence over Margaret, however, and the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court on procedural issues.

The Supreme Court addressed two questions on appeal: First, was the burden on Gary to prove he had not exercised undue influence in Margaret’s preparation of the will? And, second, did the Scott County District Court properly reject Dennis’ last-minute effort to expand his challenge at trial to include all previous versions of Margaret’s will written between 1983 and 2008 rather than just the final will?

The Supreme Court avoided the burden-of-proof question, saying that since Dennis had not made that an issue during the trial he could not raise it on appeal.

The decision, written by Justice Edward Mansfield, said Dennis did not object to the trial court instructions to the jury, which said the law “presumes a person is free from undue influence.” To overcome this presumption, Mansfield wrote, “Dennis had to prove ‘[t]he result was clearly brought about by undue influence.’ Dennis never objected to these instructions or requested alternate instructions shifting the burden of proof to Gary.”

On the second question, the Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s denial of Dennis’ motion to expand the issues at trial. “This would have unfairly disadvantaged Gary, because it would have required a different line of questioning and proof than Gary had already used,” Mansfield wrote. “In the case as pled by Dennis, only the terms of the earlier wills and codicils mattered, not the specific circumstances of their execution or Margaret’s condition at the time.”

To read the briefs in the Workman appeal, go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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