Contested Will

Jan 4, 2024 | Uncategorized

A Real Life Lesson

The Tangled Legacy of Russell Tank: A Family Farm Dispute

In a recent legal saga born from the rural community of Britton, South Dakota, the last will and testament of the late Russell Tank has been the subject of intense scrutiny and legal challenge and involves a $3.5 million estate and $150,000 of buried cash.

The will, which seemingly favored neighbor and farm tenant Bender over Tank’s own offspring, sparked a lawsuit from Russell’s four children, who raised questions about their father’s mental capacity and susceptibility to undue influence at the time of the will’s creation.

Russell Tank, a seasoned farmer who returned from military service in the 1950s, spent his life cultivating his estate in Waverly Township. After a divorce in 1974, his four children faced a strained relationship with their father, who largely focused on his passion for vintage vehicles and his dog, Whitey.

The will in question, which named Bender as the estate’s sole heir and personal representative, came under fire as Russell’s daughter Sherri contested its validity. She won a jury verdict on the claim that Bender unduly influenced the creation of the will. However, the circuit court later set aside this verdict, prompting an appeal which the higher court reversed, allowing Sherri’s claim to proceed.

Throughout his life, Russell’s relationships with his children were complicated. After the divorce, the children tried to maintain ties with their father, but these efforts were often met with coldness and disinterest. The farm’s operation and Russell’s relationships grew increasingly isolated, especially after he inexplicably turned sons Arlo and then Renny away from the farm in the mid-1980s and early 2000s, respectively.

Russell executed three wills over a decade, with the latter two favoring Bender, who had grown increasingly close to Russell, even leasing his land at 25% of fair market value. Witnesses observed Bender’s deepening influence over Russell and noted his control over access to the aging farmer.

The dispute culminated after Russell’s death in 2016 when Bender produced the last will, which completely disinherited Russell’s children. The ensuing court battle highlighted concerns over Russell’s mental state in his later years and Bender’s role in his affairs, including a suspicious codicil to the will in Bender’s handwriting.

The court found undue influence on Bender’s part, resulting in a win for the daughter. Part of the court’s reasoning was a combination of the low rental rates, a map Bender kept secret showing where all the cash was buried, adding his name to Russell’s bank accounts, Russell opening large investment accounts with Bender’s wife, and the control Bender portrayed over folks having access to speak with Russell.

In the end, the court’s decision to side with Russell’s daughter underscores the importance of vigilance and fairness in matters of inheritance, especially in cases where the mental capacity and independence of a testator are in question.

Read the full South Dakota Supreme Court opinion here: In The Matter Of The Estate Of Russell O. Tank

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