May 8, 2012
California Recognizes Intentional Interference with an Expected Inheritance as a Valid Cause of Action
The Problem: So often a family member or friend is told by a Decedent that he will inherit some or all of an estate. The Decedent truly has that intention, but as he or she ages and becomes weak of mind, the Decedent is easily tricked or defrauded. Following the Decedent’s passing the person expecting an inheritance learns that a fraud was perpetrated on the elder, the Decedent’s testamentary wishes have been thwarted, and the expected inheritance has been snatched by a scoundrel. Until now, a person had little or no chance of bringing suit to claim his or her expected inheritance—intentional interference with expected inheritance was simply not recognized as a valid cause of action in California.
A New Cause of Action: On May 3rd, 2012, the Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, became the first California Court of Appeal to officially recognize the tort of Intentional Interference with an Expected Inheritance (IIEI). The case, Beckwith v Dahl, G044479, involved a dying man, Marc MacGinnis, who wished to leave half his estate to his longtime partner, Brent Beckwith, and the other half to his only living relative, sister Susan Dahl. MacGinnis had previously shown Beckwith a will, drafted on MacGinnis’s computer, which left half his property to Beckwith and half to Dahl. As MacGinnis lay ill and awaiting life-threatening surgery, he asked Beckwith to print out the will for MacGinnis to sign. Beckwith could not find the will, so he drafted a new one using online forms. But before presenting the will to MacGinnis, Beckwith made the mistake of showing Dahl. Dahl, knowing she was MacGinnis’s sole legal heir and knowing she would take everything in the absence of a will, told Beckwith that he should not have MacGinnis sign the will, but rather, for tax reasons, she should have her lawyer friend draw up a trust that did the same thing MacGinnis wanted but would save everyone a tax bill. She never drew up such a trust. A few days later, MacGinnis died of complications from his surgery. Because MacGinnis died without a will, Dahl successfully applied to become executor of the estate; Beckwith was left with nothing.
With these facts before it, the Court of Appeal decided “it is time to officially recognize” intentional interference with an expected inheritance (IIEI). The Court noted that this tort claim is already available in a majority of states and is set forth in the Restatement of Torts, 2nd. The opinion neatly lays out the five elements a plaintiff must plead in order to state a valid claim for IIEI. First, plaintiff must have an expectation of receiving some beneficial interest through inheritance. Second, the plaintiff must allege causation; the Court describes this as “proof amounting to a reasonable degree of certainty that the bequest or devise would have been in effect at the time of death of the testator if there had been no such interference.” This language is taken nearly verbatim from the Restatement. Third, the plaintiff must plead intent. In other words, the plaintiff must plead that the defendant knew of plaintiff’s expectancy interest and deliberately interfered with it. Fourth, the interference must be independently tortious. That is, the conduct must be “wrong” in some way above and beyond the “wrongness” of interference. Fifth and finally, the plaintiff must allege he was damaged by the wrongful interference.
In addition to laying out the elements, the Court weighed the public policy considerations both in favor and against the IIEI cause of action, and in doing so overcame significant policy concerns. One concern involves the integrity of the probate process, as opposed to tort remedies, as the sole forum to resolve disputes between beneficiaries. The Court addressed this by limiting IIEI to situations in which the plaintiff has no adequate recourse at probate. Second, the Court recognized the general rule against enforcing gratuitous promises. In finding that this general rule should not outweigh other policy considerations, the Court noted that other “interference tort” doctrines protect mere expectancies of future economic benefits. Finally, in dealing with the concern that the interest is too speculative to be enforced, the Court noted that this is a question of fact, that courts often deal with difficult questions of fact, and that problems with too much speculation can be addressed using “a threshold causation requirement… proof that it is reasonably probable that the lost economic advantage would have been realized but for the defendant’s interference.”
Finally, the Court, almost scornfully, dismissed arguments suggesting that recognition of the tort would open the floodgates of litigation, quoting another case that ignored such a position as being “but an argument that the courts are incapable of performing their appointed tasks.” The Court of Appeal says California courts are tasked with righting wrongs, citing the California Code maxim “for every wrong there is a remedy.” Stay tuned to see whether the California Supreme Court believes California courts are up to this task.
The Takeaway: There is a new, but narrow, cause of action in California, the IIEI. The most significant limitations on the cause of action seem to be three-fold. First and foremost, the plaintiff must have no adequate remedy in probate. Second, the defendant’s tortious conduct must be the reason the plaintiff has no remedy in probate. Finally, there seems to be a heightened causation requirement, at least at the pleading stages, calling the causation inquiry “threshold” and requiring the plaintiff to plead a reasonable probability that he would have received the inheritance absent defendant’s interference. Still, for a disappointed beneficiary left in the cold by reason of another’s wrongful conduct, this case gives hope and, perhaps more importantly, a cause of action.
Ryan Cunningham is an Associate in Hopkins & Carley’s Trust & Estate Litigation department.