When someone’s estate plan has been changed by wrongdoing, the affected party traditionally challenges the amended will or trust in the Probate Court. However, if there is no probate remedy that is available or adequate to address the harm, the alternative to probate litigation is a civil court complaint for Tortious Interference with Expected Inheritance.
The United States Supreme Court recognized the tort action for interference with expected inheritance or gift in the analogous case of Marshall v. Marshall – better known as the Anna Nicole Smith case – in which Anna was represented by the Boesch Law Group. In that well-publicized case, the Boesch Law Group proved that her stepson interfered with transfers of stock that her husband intended as part of her inheritance. And the Boesch Law Group proved that Anna would have received, if not for the forging and destruction of documents, millions of dollars’ worth of Koch Industries stock. The Federal Court Judgment of $474,000,000 obtained by the Boesch Law Group, reported by US Lawyer Weekly as “the Number One Judgment in the United States,” was followed by the U.S. District Court Judgement obtained by the Boesch Law Group in excess of $88,000,000.
California courts now also recognize the tort of interference with expected inheritance, as do nearly thirty other states around the country. In 2012, the California Court of Appeals decided Beckwith v. Dahl, 205 Cal. App. 4th 1039. In that case, Brent Beckwith was in a ten-year, committed relationship with his partner, Marc MacGinnis. MacGinnis had only one surviving family member – his sister, Susan Dahl. MacGinnis drafted a will dividing his substantial estate between his sister and his partner. 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. After she promised that she would have a trust drafted and sent to MacGinnis for his signature, MacGinnis passed away before he could sign either the will or the trust.
Under the California law governing intestacy (which determines who inherits when you die without a will), MacGinnis’ sister was his only legal heir. She promptly informed Beckwith that he would receive no part of MacGinnis’ estate. Beckwith attempted to challenge Dahl in Probate Court, but the judge ruled that he lacked standing because he was not a spouse or blood relative. So Beckwith then filed a civil lawsuit, claiming tortious interference with expected inheritance. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, but when Beckwith appealed, the California Court of Appeals held for the first time in this state that one could sue for the tort of intentional interference, when as in Beckwith’s case, there was no remedy available in the probate court. The Court in Beckwith v. Dahl outlined six elements that must be present for a successful claim: 1) expectation of inheritance; 2) causation; 3) intent; 4) tortious interference; 5) damage; and 6) harm to someone other than the plaintiff.
The Restatement (Second) of Torts § 774B clarifies that the tort applies “when a testator has been induced by tortious (wrongful) means to make his first will or not to make it; and it applies also when he has been induced to change or revoke his will or not to change or revoke it. It applies also when a will is forged, altered or suppressed.” The Restatement also defines gift as “any donation, gratuity or benefaction that the other would have received from the third person,” which may include a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.
The “tortious means” requirement limits liability to cases where the wrongdoer interfered with the inheritance or gift by committing some independent wrong, such as forging, altering, destroying or hiding a will or other document, by defaming the intended recipient, or by lying or committing fraud (fraudulent misrepresentation) or duress.
In order to prove tortious interference, the victim must be able to prove to a reasonable certainty that the gift or devise would have been made if there had been no interference.
Since Beckwith v. Dahl was decided in 2012, there have been no further published California cases on the issue. However, there has been one unreported decision that offers some additional guidance. In Anderson v. Gleason, 2017 WL 4003768, the Court dismissed a cause of action for tortious interference with expected inheritance for two reasons. The first reason was that the plaintiff had an adequate remedy through the Probate Court, because unlike the plaintiff in Beckwith, the plaintiff in Anderson was a legal heir and therefore had standing to challenge in Probate Court an existing will and trust. The second reason was that, unlike in Beckwith, the testator was still alive. The Court reasoned that the plaintiff could not “assert to a reasonable degree of certainty that the bequest or devise would be in effect at the time of death but for the interference [because] . . . a testator is able to change his or her testamentary documents at any time before death.”
While California Courts have not provided further guidance on the parameters of the tort, a few other states have updated their discussion of the issue since Beckwith.
In Bjork v. O’Meara (2013), 986 N.E.2d 626, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that a claim for tortious interference with inheritance was governed by the statute of limitations for recovery of property, not the shorter statute of limitations for bringing a will contest. A tortious interference claim, the court held, is a claim for damages, not a claim to any property in the estate.
In 2015, the federal court for the District of Columbia decided Kennedy-Jarvis v. Wells, (D.C. 2015)113 F.Supp.3d 144. Wells, the grandson of the decedent, was accused of breaching his fiduciary duty as personal administrator, of stealing assets from the estate, and of misrepresenting the value of the estate to one of the other beneficiaries, Jarvis. The Court found that it had jurisdiction to hear the claims against Wells because the claims did not seek to probate or annul a will, nor did they require the federal court to administer a probate estate. Even where the issues in the civil case may “intertwine” with proceedings in the probate case, the civil courts have the ability to consider the direct claims for damages against the administrator of the estate.
Also in 2015, a federal court in South Carolina decided Wellin v. Wellin,(D.S.C. 2015), 135 F.Supp.3d 502, recognizing the tort for the first time in that state. In that case, three adult children sued their stepmother for defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of prenuptial agreement, and other wrongdoing which they claimed added up to tortious interference with expected inheritance. The plaintiff children claimed that when their father had become disabled, their stepmother had fired his long-time attorneys and advisors and hired new lawyers to change his estate plan in her favor, and to her stepchildren’s detriment, while preventing the children from seeing their father and turning their father against them. The Court found that at least some of the damages the children had suffered, particularly from transfers made while their father was still alive, could not be remedied in Probate Court, and so it decided that the children’s claims could proceed to trial.
The circumstances under which a damaged party can bring a lawsuit for the relatively new tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance can be complicated, and there is not a lot of guidance offered by the California courts since Beckwith. If you think that you may have a claim for tortious interference, you should consult with attorneys who have been on the forefront of this important legal issue. 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. For a consultation with one of our expert estate litigation attorneys, please call us today.