Iowa Supreme Court: Tortious Interference With an Inheritance Requires Defendant To Have Knowledge of Plaintiff’s Expectancy Of an Inheritance

In Buboltz v. Birusingh, a June 11, 2021 opinion from the Iowa Supreme Court, the Court addressed the question of whether a cause of action for tortious interference with inheritance requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectation to receive an inheritance from the decedent.

The Facts of Buboltz v. Birusingh

Cletis Ireland died in March 2016 at age 92.  Cletis was an only child, never married, and had no children.  Her estate included her family’s century farm where she had lived most of her adult life.

In 2001, Ireland executed a will that would have given her farm in equal shares to David Buboltz, a cash rent farmer who had been leasing about eighty acres on the farm since 1991, and Edith Mae Maertens, her cousin.  In 2015, Ireland executed a new Iowa will. The new will removed both Maertens, who had died in 2008, and Buboltz as the beneficiaries of her  farm  and purported  to  give the  farm  instead  to  Kumari  Durick,  the daughter  of  a  family  friend. Ireland  named  Durick’s  mother,  Patricia Birusingh, as the executor of her estate in the new will.

Birusingh was married to Ireland’s doctor. Ireland, sometime after she  executed  the  2001  will,  grew  close  to  the  Birusingh  family. When Ireland due to her advancing age could  no longer drive a car, Birusingh and Durick began bringing her groceries, driving her to appointments, and running  other  errands  for  her.

Shortly  after  Ireland  died, one of Maertens’s daughters (and thus Ireland’s first cousin once removed) named Donna  Reece, along  with  Buboltz,  filed  a  lawsuit  to  set  aside Ireland’s 2015 will. Their petition alleged several causes of action against Birusingh and Durick, including undue influence and tortious interference with inheritance.

Summary Judgment On the Tortious Interference Claim

Birusingh and Durick sought summary judgment on the Iowa tortious-interference-with-inheritance  claim. They  argued  that this cause of action requires proof, among other things, that a defendant knew of the plaintiff’s expected inheritance from the decedent. Birusingh and Durick claimed that no evidence existed to show that they had knowledge of any expected inheritance by Buboltz or Reece related to Ireland’s 2001 will or, for that matter, that they had any knowledge of Ireland’s 2001 will whatsoever.

Buboltz and Reece countered that, despite no direct evidence proving  knowledge,  circumstantial  evidence  created  disputes of material fact concerning what Birusingh and Durick knew, and that these factual disputes required the court to deny summary judgment.

The Iowa district court granted the summary judgment motion and dismissed the plaintiffs’ tortious-interference-with-inheritance claim.

Buboltz and Reece appealed the dismissal of the tortious-interference-with-inheritance claim, arguing that the district court erroneously determined that the tort required proof that a defendant possess knowledge of a plaintiff’s expected inheritance. They further argue that, even if we find the tort includes such a requirement, the district court erred in concluding that no dispute of material fact existed on the issue.

Tortious Interference With Inheritance In Iowa

The tort of tortious interference with inheritance has not been widely examined in Iowa case law.  In 2020, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Youngblut v. Youngblut, which we wrote about here.  In Youngblut, the Iowa Supreme Court determined that a tortious interference with inheritance action was barred unless joined with a timely will contest. However, the elements of the tort were not analyzed or set forth.

The Iowa Supreme Court relied on the Restatement (Third) of Torts, cited in Youngblut, which defines tortious interference with inheritance as follows:

(1) A  defendant  is  subject  to  liability  for  interference with an inheritance or gift if: (a) the  plaintiff  had  a  reasonable  expectation  of receiving an inheritance or gift; (b) the  defendant  committed  an  intentional  and independent legal wrong; (c) the defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy; (d) the   defendant’s     conduct     caused     the expectancy to fail; and (e) the plaintiff suffered economic loss as a result.

Is Knowledge Of an Expectancy Of Inheritance an Element Of Tortious Interference With Inheritance?

In this case, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the question of whether defendant must know of the plaintiff’s expectation to receive an inheritance from the decedent.  The Iowa Supreme Court answered the question in the affirmative, stating:

The evidence required to establish subsection (c) [the defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy] necessarily includes a requirement that a defendant know of the plaintiff’s expected inheritance since a defendant ignorant of a plaintiff’s expectancy could never have as her purpose an intention to interfere with it. Stated differently, without knowing of the plaintiff’s expectancy, a defendant could not act with the purpose to interfere with that expectancy. To steal a phrase from the old song, you can’t have one without the other.

The Iowa Supreme Court dismissed Buboltz and Reece’s argument that the tort of interference with inheritance requires no knowledge, because all Iowans have beneficiaries that will inherit their property.  The Court recognized that the tort seeks to remedy a more specific type of wrongdoing:

A cause of action for intentional interference with inheritance focuses not on interference with any expectancy. The tort is targeted instead to remedy intentional interference with a particular person’s expectancy: the plaintiff’s. Intentional interference requires that a defendant acts with the purpose to deprive the plaintiff of her expectancy to that same inheritance. Without such a requirement as to purpose, the tort risks ensnaring citizens who provide assistance to the elderly—conduct that society generally seeks to promote—who then become beneficiaries in wills or trusts without intending to interfere with someone else’s known expectancy of that same inheritance. We believe the district court correctly held that the plaintiffs needed to prove the defendants’ knowledge of the plaintiffs’ expectancy of an inheritance from the decedent.

Thus, even though the Restatement (Third) of Torts does not include a separate element devoted solely to the proof of knowledge, the tort necessarily includes a requirement that defendants possess knowledge of a plaintiff’s expectance of inheritance.

What Constitutes Evidence of Knowledge Of an Expectancy Of Inheritance?

Here, the district court granted summary judgment and dismissed the tortious interference with inheritance claim.

The district court distilled the alleged circumstantial evidence of knowledge that Buboltz and Reece offered into three parts:

  1. That Buboltz had been Ireland’s farm tenant since 1991, long before Ireland had met Birusingh or Durick;
  2. That Birusingh or Durick admitted to having conversations with Ireland about her estate planning and drove Ireland to Ireland’s lawyer’s office when she executed the 2015 will; and
  3. That Buboltz made an offer to Ireland to buy her farm land.

 

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s determination that the evidence did not create a material issue of fact to survive summary judgment.  The Court found no basis to conclude that the defendants knew of the plaintiffs’ expectancy of an inheritance based merely on the nature of their relationships with Ireland.  The Court also held that discussions of future intentions do not provide indication of communications concerning a prior will or its beneficiaries. Finally, the Court determined that Buboltz’s offer to purchase offers nothing to prove the defendants’ knowledge of his expectancy.

Because the summary judgment contained no evidence that decedent’s 2001 will, or any other aspects of Ireland’s prior estate planning, had ever been shared or discussed with Birusingh or Durick, the grant of summary judgment was affirmed.  This case is an important development in the case law on tortious interference with expectancy of inheritance in Iowa.

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