May 11, 2012

Intentional Interference with an Expected Inheritance

Intentional interference with an expected lunch

A recent California Court of Appeal decision held that California now recognizes the tort of intentional interference with an expected inheritance ("IIEI"). While this term definitely constitutes legal jargon, it is conceptually easy to grasp. The facts of the following case illustrate this.
Beckwith v. Dahl (2012) 205 CA4th 1309

Brent Beckwith was the long-time cohabitating partner of  Marc Christian MacGinnis. However, they were not married nor were they registered domestic partners. Marc's next of kin was his sister as his parents had predeceased him and he had no children.

In May 2009, Marc was admitted to the hospital due to ailing health. While in the hospital, Marc told Brent that he had written a will years ago that he had stored on his computer and instructed Brent to locate the will on the computer, print it and return it to Marc so he could properly execute it. Brent went to try to find the will on Marc's computer but could not. Marc then instructed Brent to create a new will and bring it back to the hospital. Brent found a will online and downloaded it. The will dictated that Marc's estate would be divided evenly between Brent and Marc's sister Susan Dahl, his sole heir, if both of them survived Marc. Yet before he went to the hospital to have Marc sign the will, Brent called Susan and told her about the will and emailed her a copy. Susan responded by saying that Marc should draft a trust so as to avoid probate (which is legally accurate) and that inheritance taxes would be less through a will than a trust (which is legally inaccurate). Consequently, Brent never presented the will to Marc for execution and Susan never presented Marc with a trust to sign as well.

Naturally, Marc passed away due to surgery complications and he died intestate. Due to California law, Susan was the sole heir of Marc's estate as next of kin. The reason Brent was entitled to nothing initially was because he was not considered a relative of Marc.

Susan filed for probate as administrator and did a poor job in communicating the proceedings to Brent. In particular, she was not exactly forthright with how probate would play out. Eventually Brent realized that he would inherit nothing from Marc's estate and sued Susan for, inter alia, intentional interference with an expected inheritance.

The Court held that California now recognizes IIEI and that to prove a colorable claim a plaintiff needs to show that they (1) had an expectancy of an inheritance, (2) the plaintiff would have received the inheritance but for the defendant's wrongdoing, (3) there was intent on the defendant's part, (4) the conduct in question  must be wrong for some reason other than the fact of the interference and (5) the defendant caused the plaintiff damages.

The Court ultimately held that Dahl's conduct did give rise to this tort. It stated that "[h]ere, Beckwith alleged he had an expectancy in MacGinnis's estate that would have been realized but for Dahl's intentional interference. However, Beckwith did not allege Dahl directed any independently tortious conduct at MacGinnis. The only wrongful conduct alleged in Beckwith's complaint was Dahl's false promise to him." Thus, Brent would need to show wrongful conduct by Dahl directed at Marc in order to prove his claim. The Court granted Brent the opportunity to amend his complaint.

How the tort of IIEI is applied in future cases here in California obviously remains to be seen. Still, the fact that it is now recognized in California provides beneficiaries with another avenue to seek legal redress against those who commit probate malfeasance.