Inheritance Interference – A New Cause of Action
by Stephan Mihalovits
Hark! Manna for litigants! Passed down from the California Court of Appeal this month, Beckwith v. Dahl recognizes a new civil claim: Intentional Interference with an Expected Inheritance (“IIEI”).
Recognized in half the states, IIEI provides a remedy for certain prospective legatees. Guided by policy, the Court stated:
“For every wrong there is a remedy … we cannot let the difficulties of adjudication frustrate the principle that there be a remedy for every substantial wrong.” Thus, the Court held that, if a defendant, by wrongful means over the person whose property is devised by the will, interferes with plaintiff’s expected inheritance so that plaintiff is not able to contest the interference in probate court, the plaintiff is now afforded a civil claim for this interference.
The facts in the case sound like TV drama. Marc MacGinnis and Brent Beckwith were in a long-time relationship before MacGinnis was diagnosed with lung cancer. MacGinnis prepared a will splitting his property equally between Beckwith and MacGinnis’s sister Susan Dahl, but never printed or signed the will. In the hospital, MacGinnis asked Beckwith to bring him the will to sign, but Beckwith couldn’t find it. MacGinnis told him to create a new will with the same terms to sign.
Beckwith told Dahl the plan, who told Beckwith not to have her brother sign, and that she would prepare an estate instead. Beckwith followed her instructions, but MacGinnis then died without any will or estate in place.
Dahl opened the case in probate and was made administrator. Beckwith was ruled to have no standing to contest in probate court, and Dahl received the entire inheritance. Beckwith brought civil claims against Dahl for inheritance interference and fraud. After recognizing the new tort, the Court remanded the case to allow Beckwith to plead the tort’s five elements.
To state a cause of action for intentional interference with an expected inheritance, the Court stated the plaintiff must prove five elements:
- The plaintiff had some expectation of receiving an inheritance;
- It is reasonably certain he would have received the inheritance if not for the defendant’s interference;
- The defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy and took deliberate action to interfere;
- The defendant interfered through independently tortious means, such as by fraud, duress, or undue influence against the testator (not the plaintiff);
- The plaintiff was damaged by the interference.
The Narrow Scope of the IIEI Claim
The Court emphasized limitations of the claim.
The plaintiff must show a reasonable certainty he would have received the inheritance. The expectancy cannot be speculative, as shown by case law dismissing claims for interference with sports betting or acquiring government permits.
The Court also emphasized its concern for undercutting the probate courts, noting the probate system was created to protect a decedent’s testamentary intent by imposing stringent requirements on a will contest. A party with standing should contest there and should not be permitted a second challenge in civil court.
A party without standing in probate court may be permitted to state a claim for inheritance interference, but the plaintiff must show he lacks an adequate probate remedy because of the defendant’s interference.
Finally, the Court emphasized the limitation that the plaintiff must show the defendant committed a tortious act against the testator (in this case MacGinnis), not the plaintiff.
The plaintiff already has claims for torts committed against him. For example, in Beckwith, the Court held Beckwith adequately stated a claim for fraud against Dahl, based on the claim she told him she would prepare an estate and instructed him not to have MacGinnis sign the will. The Court stated that providing an additional claim (IIEI) for this same conduct would be “unnecessary and superfluous.”
In sum, the new tort provides that a plaintiff may recover where a defendant’s wrongful conduct induced or caused the testator to take some action that deprived the plaintiff of his expected inheritance. However the Court in Beckwith only remanded the case to allow Beckwith the opportunity to state a claim. The elements were made clear. The next step is for the Court to illustrate how the claim can be adequately pleaded.
Stephan Mihalovits is a Business and Civil Litigation Attorney. Contact him via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.