Intentional Interference with Expectancy of Inheritance – Beckwith v. Dahl – UPDATE

‘Beckwith’s’ Landmark Decision

In 2012 California became the 26th state to recognize the tort of Intentional Interference with Expected Inheritance (IIEI) in the case of Beckwith v. Dahl, 205 Cal.App.4th 1039 (2012).  The tort provided a remedy in civil courts for anyone who lost all or part of an inheritance because of the tortious acts of another, and for which there was no adequate probate remedy.

Under Beckwith, a plaintiff must plead and prove that he or she had an “expectancy of an inheritance” and that the defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy of inheritance and took deliberate action to interfere with it.  The deliberate action must be directed not at the plaintiff but at the decedent.  The plaintiff must further allege and prove that the interference was conducted by independently tortious means, that is, that the conduct of the defendant was wrongful for some reason other than the mere fact that it interfered with the plaintiff’s inheritance.  This wrongful conduct could be the use of undue influence, fraud, forgery or a breach of fiduciary duty.

Under Beckwith, the plaintiff must also show that the wrongful interference did proximately cause the plaintiff to suffer financial loss.  There must be proof to a reasonable degree of certainty that the inheritance the plaintiff expected to receive would have been given by the testator if there had been no such wrongful interference.

Although the Beckwith Court established the elements of the cause of action for IIEI, it did not apply the apply the new law to the facts of that case.

In September of 2020, the Court of Appeal issued the first and so far only published opinion in California affirming a judgment in favor of a plaintiff on an IIEI claim.

Gomez v. Smith

In Gomez v. Smith (2020) Cal.App.5th, it was concluded that

the plaintiff, the second wife of the decedent, should receive the benefit of a trust instrument that her late husband wanted to execute in her favor.  When her father was in hospice care, the decedent’s daughter from a prior marriage prevented his estate planner from entering her father’s house to have him sign a new living trust that would have provided a life estate for his wife.  The decedent had expressed a clear intention to have the living trust prepared and executed prior to his death.

The Gomez Court determined that the second wife had proven that she had an “expectancy” in an inheritance of the life estate from her husband, that the daughter knew of the expectancy, that the daughter had committed independently wrongful acts of undue influence and breach of fiduciary duty and that the husband/father would have had the capacity to sign the intended living trust if he had not been prevented from doing so by the daughter.  Thus the court of Appeals affirmed a verdict for the plaintiff.

Under IIEI, a successful claim results in a judgment for money damages against the defendant, in the amount of the lost inheritance.

The Gatekeeper Element

One very important difference is that an IIEI action in civil court is that it comes with the right to a jury trial.  There is no similar right in probate court.  Recognizing this distinct advantage, the jurisdiction of the probate courts, and the potential for abuse if a claimant were to file one lawsuit in probate court, and one in civil court, Beckwith added a gatekeeper element – any IIEI claimant must have an “inadequate probate remedy.”  Basically, if a plaintiff can bring his or her claim in probate court and obtain an adequate remedy there, the plaintiff cannot bring an IIEI claim in civil court for another bite at the apple.

The court in Beckwith wanted to protect the legislative intent in the Probate Code to allow probate courts to generally address inheritance disputes.

To do so, Beckwith essentially viewed demonstrating an inadequate remedy in probate to be a prerequisite to advancing an IIEI claim.  Interestingly, the Gomez Court did not specifically state such a requirement in its holding, so there may remain a bit of ambiguity surrounding this requirement.  Perhaps one day, the California Supreme Court will need to determine whether or not demonstrating there is no remedy in the probate court is requirement for bringing an IIEI claim in civil court.

Further Analysis of “Adequate Remedies” in Probate

To the extent a California Court will require a plaintiff to establish he or she has no adequate remedy in probate, as required by Beckwith, the following cases may be of assistance.

1)         An Indiana Court has held that intestacy is an adequate remedy.  If a successful trust or will challenge would result in there being no will or trust, allowing the plaintiff to recover under the laws of intestacy, then there is an adequate probate remedy. In Keith v. Dooley, 802 N.E.2d 54, 58 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), the court determined that nephews and nieces’ will contest, if successful, would result in the bulk of the estate going to them through the laws of intestacy. Therefore, the court determined that they had an adequate probate remedy because the remedies in the two actions were “substantially the same,” and dismissed the IIEI claim.

2)         According to the holding of one older California case, a “no contest clause” does not make probate remedy inadequate.  In Munn v. Briggs, 185 Cal.App.4th 578 (2010), decided prior to Beckwith, the petitioner asserted an inadequate remedy in probate as the basis for an IIEI claim because a no contest clause “suppressed any challenge to the Codicil in the probate action.”  In other words, the petitioner was concerned that any action in probate filed by him would prevent him from inheriting anything, and on that basis, was an inadequate probate remedy.  However, the Munn court determined that the potential results of a will contest was not a sufficient basis to establish an inadequate probate remedy: “[N]o beneficiary would ever risk ‘forfeiture’ based on an unsuccessful challenge in probate to a will or testament containing a no contest clause if that beneficiary instead could sue in tort and recover his or her expected inheritance without regard to, and the associated risk of a no contest clause.”

3)         Other courts have held that the availability of punitive damages in a tort action but not in probate, does not make probate remedy “inadequate”.  In Minton v. Sackett, 671 N.E. 2d 160 (Ind. 1996), the Petitioner argued that the lack of punitive damages in probate court made it an inadequate probate remedy.  The court found that the adequacy of a probate remedy is based upon whether there is an opportunity to pursue the remedy, not the actual remedy itself.  Courts “have consistently rejected the notion that punitive damages are a valid expectation for the purposes of determining the adequacy of relief in a will contest.”


What are “Inadequate Remedies” in Probate

1)         Each case must be evaluated on its own facts regarding the inadequacy of a probate remedy. A Florida court has held that one beneficiary’s fraudulent conduct in preventing another potential beneficiary from contesting a will served as an valid basis for finding an “inadequate remedy” in the probate court.  In Schilling v. Herrera, 952 So. 2d 1231 (Fla. 2007), the defendant, a hired nurse, convinced the testator to change a will that left the entire estate to plaintiff, to a new will that left the entire estate to the defendant nurse.  When the testator died, defendant did not inform plaintiff, and completed the probate of the will without an opportunity for plaintiff to contest.  The court denied defendant’s argument that plaintiff had an adequate probate remedy because such a remedy would include a “fair opportunity to pursue it.”

2)        Probate statutes of limitation are not applicable to civil actions and do not bar civil actions.  In Estate of Ellis, 923 N.E. 2d 237 (Ill. 2009), the testator executed a will in 1964 in favor of plaintiff—plaintiff was unaware of the will.  In 1999, the testator executed a new will in favor of defendant, the pastor of testator’s church.  When the testator died, the 1999 will was admitted to probate.  Plaintiff did not discover the 1964 will until three years later, and filed both a will contest and a claim for IIEI.  The trial court barred both claims as untimely based on a statute that required a will contest within 6 months after the will was admitted to probate.  The Supreme Court held that applying the probate statute to a tort claim “contradicts the clear and unambiguous language of the statute and confuses the tort with a will contest.” The IIEI was allowed to proceed as it had been filed within the statute of limitations for torts (civil actions), and there was no longer any ability to challenge the will in probate.

3)         Depleted estates.  In Peralta v. Peralta, 131 P. 3d 81 (N.M. Ct. App. 2005), the testator left her estate equally to three children.  Two of the children caused the testator to transfer the major assets of the estate to them as payable-on-death beneficiaries, and virtually depleted the entire estate by the time the testator had died.  The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s IIEI claim because an adequate probate remedy existed.  However, the appellate court the appellate court reversed the trial court and concluded that where an estate is virtually depleted prior to death, there is no adequate remedy in probate, thus allowing an IIEI claim to go forward.

The Boesch Law Group Prosecutes and Defends Some of the Most Complex IIEI Cases in the Country

How California courts will deal with these issues, in fashioning remedies for wrongful conduct and in respecting the probate courts’ administration of trusts and estates, continues to unfold as IIEI cases wind their way through the judicial system to the Appellate Courts.  Stay tuned and if you believe someone has wrongfully caused you to have your inheritance diminished or taken from you completely, please call the Boesch Law Group as soon as possible as there are time limits in probate cases and in IIEI cases in civil court.