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Burkhalter v. Burkhalter

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 20, 2013

William L. BURKHALTER, Appellant,
Steven P. BURKHALTER, Appellee.

Page 94

Martin A. Diaz and Elizabeth Jenadija Craig of Martin Diaz Law Firm, Iowa City, for appellant.

William G. Nicholson and Robert R. Rush of Rush & Nicholson, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice.

William Burkhalter challenged an unfavorable modification of his father's revocable trust that occurred just prior to his father's death. William claimed his brother, Steven Burkhalter, unduly influenced their father and tortiously interfered with the trust. William also alleged his father lacked the necessary testamentary intent when he made the modification. At trial, the district court directed a verdict for Steven on the tortious interference claim, and the jury returned a verdict for Steven on the testamentary capacity and undue

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influence claims. William appealed, claiming the district court gave the jury an erroneous instruction on undue influence that improperly heightened his burden of proof and prejudicially repeated the causation element. Steven cross-appealed, claiming the district court should have directed a verdict in his favor on all claims. On direct appeal, the court of appeals held the challenged instruction prejudiced William and remanded the case for a new trial on the undue influence claim. The court of appeals denied Steven's cross-appeal.

On further review, we conclude the district court's instruction accurately reflected the law of undue influence and did not unduly emphasize the causation element of the undue influence claim. As a result, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and reinstate the jury verdict and the district court's judgment thereon.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

Louis D. Burkhalter Jr. created the Louis D. Burkhalter Jr. Revocable Trust on January 14, 1980. Under the original terms of the trust, William was the primary beneficiary following the deaths of Louis and his wife, Margaret. Upon William's death, the trust directed the trustee to distribute the remaining assets to Louis's heirs. The trust designated the United States Bank, n/k/a U.S. Bank, N.A., of Cedar Rapids as trustee.

In 1995, Louis amended the trust to name William's wife, Cynthia, and his son, Matthew, as beneficiaries. Under the amended terms, Cynthia and Matthew would continue as beneficiaries following the deaths of Louis, Margaret, and William. Upon the deaths of Cynthia and Matthew, the remaining assets would be distributed to Louis's heirs.

In 2003, Louis amended the trust to allow the trustee, at its discretion, to distribute trust assets for the support of Louis's sister, Patricia. In 2004, Louis placed his home into the trust. At the time, William was living in the home with his family. Louis directed that William and his family have complete control of the residence as long as their decisions were reasonable and approved by the trustee.

By early July 2007, Louis, who was then ninety-eight years old, experienced a decline in health. He was moved from an independent-living wing at an assisted living community, where he had lived for several years, to a wing that provided twenty-four-hour care. Steven became aware of the change and, on July 9, traveled from his home in California to Iowa to visit his father. According to Steven, Louis and he had a conversation about the trust on July 11. During the conversation, Steven claimed, Louis indicated his desire to modify the trust to make Steven and William equal beneficiaries and instructed Steven to call the trustee to arrange the modification.

A few hours after the conversation with Louis, Steven met with a trust officer of the bank, who in turn called Louis's attorney. The trust officer, a longtime advisor of Louis, met with Louis later that day without Steven being present. Louis's attorney met with Louis the following day, July 12, again without Steven being present. The trust was modified July 13 to divide the trust assets equally between William and Steven.[1] Louis died six days later.

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On January 25, 2008, William filed a petition claiming that the modification was the result of undue influence, that Louis lacked the testamentary capacity to make the change, and that Steven intentionally and improperly interfered with the distribution plan of the trust. Trial was held from October 31, 2011, to November 4. Following the close of evidence, Steven moved for a directed verdict on all claims. The district court directed a verdict on the tortious interference claim, but refused to direct a verdict on the undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity claims.

The parties then proceeded to haggle on jury instructions. With regard to undue influence, William generally modeled his requested jury instructions on the Iowa Civil Jury Instructions of the Iowa State Bar Association. The Iowa Civil Jury Instructions provide one instruction setting forth the elements of undue influence and another defining undue influence. Iowa Civil Jury Instruction 2700.4 sets forth the elements of undue influence:

The law presumes a person is free from undue influence. To overcome this presumption, plaintiff must prove each of the four following propositions:
1. At the time the will was made (testator) was susceptible to undue influence.
2. [Defendant] had the opportunity to exercise such influence and carry out the wrongful purpose.
3. [Defendant] was inclined to influence (testator) unduly for the purpose of getting an improper favor.
4. The result was clearly brought about by undue influence.
If the plaintiff has failed to prove one or more of these propositions, your verdict will be for the defendant. If plaintiff has proved all of these propositions, your verdict will be for plaintiff.

Iowa State Bar Ass'n, Iowa Civil Jury Instructions 2700.4 (2011). Iowa Civil Jury Instruction 2700.5 provides a definition of " undue influence" :

Undue influence means a person substitutes his or her intentions for those of the person making the will. The will then expresses the purpose and intent of the person exercising the influence, not those of the maker of the will. Undue influence must be present at the very time the will is signed and must be the controlling factor. The person charged with exercising undue influence need not be personally present when the will was being made or signed but the person's influence must have been actively working at the time the will was being made and signed.

Id. 2700.5.

The district court's proposed instruction merged these two model instructions. The district court's proposed Instruction No. 2 stated:

In order for William to prevail on his claim of undue influence, he must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that at or about the time the trust provisions were changed all of the following circumstances existed:
1. Louis was susceptible to the type of influence described in Paragraph 4 of this instruction.
2. Steven had the opportunity to exercise such influence over Louis.
3. Steven was inclined to influence Louis for purposes of gaining favor.
4. Steven assumed a position of dominance over Louis's decision to the extent that the decision to change the trust provisions was Steven's decision rather than Louis's decision.
5. The changes made to the trust provisions were clearly the result of the foregoing circumstances.

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As is apparent, subparagraphs 1, 2, 3, and 5 of Instruction No. 2 stated the substance of the elements of undue influence contained in Iowa Civil Jury Instruction 2700.4. Subparagraph 4, however, contained language related to the definition of undue influence contained in Iowa Civil Jury Instruction No. 2700.5.

William objected to the court's proposed Instruction No. 2, but the district court declined to modify the instruction. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Steven on the remaining claims. William filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied, and this appeal followed.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed the district court and remanded for a new trial after concluding the district court's addition of subparagraph 4 prejudiced William. According to the court of appeals, the addition of subparagraph 4 " added another step the plaintiff had to prove, thereby rendering the instruction faulty either through repetition, or by giving undue emphasis to otherwise correct statements of law." Finally, the court of appeals noted it found sufficient evidence to deny Steven's directed verdict and send the undue influence issue to the jury.

Steven sought further review, which ...

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