Tortious Interference

Tortious Interference with Inheritance

The Boesch Law Group received recognition for the “Number One Judgment in the United States,” a U.S. Law Weekly annual pronouncement, in a well-publicized tortious interference case involving Anna Nicole Smith and her claims against E. Pierce Marshall, an heir and the youngest son of Anna’s husband, billionaire J. Howard Marshall, II. That federal court case went on appeal to the United States Supreme Court, not once but twice, and much has been written about its importance as a case precedent in probate matters, in bankruptcy matters, and in trust and estate matters. But the Anna Nicole Smith case actually was not a case of tortious interference with inheritance, but a case of tortious interference with gifts. The concept and cause of action for tortious interference with inheritance, is a more recently acknowledged tort in the state of California, following the Court’s decision in Beckwith v. Dahl (2012), 205 Cal. App. 4th 1039. In the short period of time since the Beckwith decision, it has been cited and followed in nine other Appellate and District Court opinions.

Tortious interference with expected inheritance is a straightforward concept: when a person uses fraud, duress or other wrongful means intentionally to prevent another person from receiving an inheritance that he or she would otherwise receive, we call that tortious interference. A tortious interference case typically is brought in the civil courts, instead of the probate court, because the will or trust that exists, if any, does not express the real intentions of its creator.

On May 3, 2012, in Beckwith v. Dahl, the California Court of Appeals officially recognized a claim for tortious interference with expected inheritance, joining twenty-five other states where such claims have been recognized. Brent Beckwith was in a ten-year, committed relationship with Marc MacGinnis. McGinnis had only one surviving family member – his sister, Susan Dahl. MacGinnis drafted a will which divided his $1 million estate between his sister and Beckwith. Before he was able to sign the will, he became seriously ill and underwent surgery. When he was again prepared to sign his will, his sister objected and advised that a trust-based estate plan would be better and promised that she would have a trust drafted and sent to MacGinnis for his signature. Unfortunately, MacGinnis passed away before he could sign either the Will or the trust.

Under the California laws of inheritance and descent, Dahl was deemed to be MacGinnis’ only legal heir, and she promptly informed Beckwith that she would receive everything from the estate and he would receive nothing. When the probate judge found that Beckwith lacked standing because he did not have rights as a family member or as a beneficiary under a will or trust, Beckwith then filed a civil action for intentional interference with expected inheritance. The trial court dismissed, holding that the tort of interference with inheritance had never been recognized in this state.

In a landmark decision, the Court of Appeals reversed, and recognized for the first time the tort of intentional interference, but only under circumstances where, as in Beckwith’s case, there is no available remedy through the probate courts. The Court then outlined six distinct elements that must be included in a claim for tortious interference of expected inheritance: 1) Expectation of Inheritance; 2) Causation; 3) Intent; 4) Tortious Interference; 5) Damage; and 6) Harm to Someone Other Than the Plaintiff. We will explain each of these elements below:

Expectation of Inheritance – The plaintiff must prove that he or she had a legitimate expectation of receiving an inheritance.

Causation – There must be proof that, to a reasonable degree of certainty, the inheritance would have been in effect at the time of death, but for the tortious interference.

Intent – The defendant must have known of the plaintiff’s expectation of inheritance and must have deliberately and knowingly taken action to interfere.

Tortious Interference – The interference must have been conducted by independently tortious means; in other words, the underlying conduct must be wrong for some reason other than the fact that it interfered with plaintiff’s expectation. Wrongful conduct might include destroying documents, lying or misrepresenting facts, breaching a trust or fiduciary duty, or other acts that interfered with the testator’s exercise of free will.

Damage – The plaintiff must prove that he or she was damaged by the tortious interference.

Harm To Someone Other Than Plaintiff – Defendant must have directed his or her conduct at the deceased individual, not just the plaintiff. In other words, the defendant must have used fraud, duress, undue influence, or some other type of wrongful conduct against the deceased, to induce or cause him or her to take action which deprived the plaintiff of an expected inheritance.

If you have been wrongfully deprived of your inheritance because of someone else’s wrongful acts, or if you anticipate that someone may accuse you of wrongful conduct, you may need expert advice on the relatively new tort of interference with expected inheritance. The Boesch Law Group has considerable experience in tortious interference cases and can advise you of your rights and the options available to you under California law. To consult with one of our expert Los Angeles will and trust litigation attorneys, please call us today.

 

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