‘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.

In September of 2020, the Court of Appeal issued the first published opinion in California that affirms 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 should receive the benefit of a trust instrument that her late husband wanted to execute because two of his children precluded him from meeting with his lawyer to sign it.

Prior to the decision in Gomez v. Smith, Beckwith has been cited by a handful of appellate cases, none of them has actually addressed the holding of Beckwith leaving a litigant to interpret the scope of Beckwith’s landmark decision.

For example, traditionally, a testator’s intent is determined by a will contest in probate court.  If successful, the will is set aside in favor of an older version of the will or trust, or if there is no older version, then the estate’s assets pass via rules of intestacy.  Under IIEI, a successful claim will result 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 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 you can bring your claim in probate court, you don’t have any right to bring the same 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 an inadequate remedy in probate as synonymous with a lack of standing to pursue a will contest—an action only available in probate.

Difference Between Will & Trust and IIEI

There is a seeming and potentially confusing similarity between the two types of claims between a will or trust contest and an IIEI claim.  An IIEI claim focuses upon how a third-party has prevented the testator from exercising his or her true intent, in ways similar to the focus of the probate court in “undue influence” cases, that is, cases where a testator has been so influenced, that his or her free will has been replaced by the will of another.

The differences and similarities raise issues as to how California courts will deal with Beckwith claims.

Consider This Hypothetical

Mother decides to split her estate 50/50 between her only son, Rick, and her best friend, Emily.   She tells both of them about her plans.  Mother signs a will to that effect, and stores it at her home.  Mother has no other potential heirs.  Subsequently, in the hospital with a terminal condition, she asks Rick to find the will.  Rick finds the will and destroys it.  He tells Mother that he was unable to find the will.  Mother instructs Rick to have a new will prepared for her signature.  Rick promises to prepare a new will, but stalls knowing that his Mother is terminal—he never intended to prepare a new will for Mother’s signature.  Eventually, Mother dies without having signed the new will, and the estate goes entirely to Rick as the only surviving heir of a deceased without a will.  Emily gets nothing because she is not related to Mother who died without a will.  In this scenario, Emily has a claim against Rick for IIEI.

Destruction of a Will or Trust Document is an Easy Case

Rick’s wrongful conduct aimed at Mother, the testator, caused the absence of a will splitting Mother’s assets 50/50 between Rick and Emily as Mother intended, and deprived Emily of her expected inheritance.

However, if you reverse the roles of Rick and Emily, and adjust the hypothetical, you can understand the distinction better between a tort claim in civil court and an adequate remedy in probate court which would restrict an IIEI claim.

Suppose Emily was asked by Mother to find her will.  Emily says that she can’t find the original will, and prepares a new will adjusting the percentages so that she takes 75% of Mother’s Estate.  Mother signs the will with Emily’s representation that the will splits her assets 50/50 between Rick and Emily.  Emily’s actions would satisfy each of the elements of an IIEI claim, but Rick will nevertheless be unable to bring a claim for IIEI because he has an “adequate probate remedy”—as his Mother’s son, he can contest the will in probate court—something Emily could not do.

There are sure to be many fact scenarios that will inevitably push the boundaries of Beckwith v. Dahl, especially they relate to whether there is an “adequate remedy in probate.”  Since this is an area where courts in other states have struggled, a review of cases from other states may be instructive in predicting how California courts will likely review the “adequacy of” probate remedies in the future.

Adequate Remedies in Probate

1)         An Indiana Court has held that intestacy is an adequate 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.  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.”


Inadequate Remedies in Probate

1)         It is difficult to reconcile all of the decisions on this subject, as fraudulent conduct has been held to be the basis for a finding of “inadequate remedy.”  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)         Statutes of limitation in probate are not applicable to 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.”

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 concluded that where an estate is virtually depleted prior to death, there is no adequate remedy in probate.

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, remains to be seen – as IIEI cases wind their way through the judicial system to the Appellate Courts.  Stay tuned.