09 May 2012

Intentional Interference With An Expected Inheritance

A California appellate court in the case Beckwith v. Dahl ruled on May 3, 2012 that a plaintiff may now bring a cause of action for intentional interference with an expected inheritance (IIEI). To assert IIEI in a lawsuit, the injured party (i.e., the person who did not receive the anticipated inheritance) must allege that there was a strong probability that he or she would have received an inheritance but for the intentional interference by a third party.

Facts. The facts of the Beckwith case are as follows. Brent Beckwith (Brent), the plaintiff in this matter, had a 10 year committed relationship with Marc Christian MacGinnis (Marc). Marc’s only living relative was his estranged sister, Susan Dahl (Susan). One day, Marc showed Brent a Will that he drafted on his computer that left one-half of his estate to Brent and one-half of his estate to Susan. This Will was never printed and signed.

In May 2009, Marc’s health declined and he was admitted to the hospital to have surgery on his lungs. While awaiting surgery, Marc asked Brent to print out the Will on his computer so that he could sign it. Brent could not find the Will. Marc then asked Brent to prepare a new Will so that he could sign it the following day. Brent downloaded a Will form from the Internet and created a Will for Marc leaving half of his estate to Susan and the other half to Brent. Before Brent provided the Will to Marc, he called Susan to tell her about it and he emailed a copy of the unsigned Will to her. Susan responded by email suggesting that Marc’s estate should pass through a trust rather than a Will in order to avoid probate upon Marc’s death. Susan followed-up with a phone call saying that one of her friends could prepare the trust document in a couple days.

Two days following Susan and Brent’s phone call, Marc had surgery on his lungs. The doctors informed Susan that the surgery was risky and that Marc might not survive it. The doctors could not disclose this information to Brent because he was not considered a family member under state law. Susan did not share this information with Brent. After the surgery, Marc was kept alive on a ventilator. Six days later, Susan instructed the doctors, upon their advice, to turn off the ventilator. Marc died shortly thereafter without having signed a Will or a trust.

Susan opened a probate court proceeding for Marc’s intestate estate. In the intestacy proceeding, Susan was Marc’s only heir under California law, so she would inherit all of Marc’s estate. When Brent discovered this, he filed a civil suit alleging several causes of action against Susan, including IIEI. The trial court dismissed the cause of action for IIEI because it was not a cause of action recognized under California law. Brent appealed this decision.

Appellate Court Ruling. The appellate court ruled that IIEI should be recognized as a valid cause of action under California law. To assert a claim for IIEI, the plaintiff must have no adequate remedy under probate law and allege the following:

1.         The plaintiff has an expectancy of inheritance;

2.         There must be proof to a reasonable degree of certainty that but for the actions of the third party, the plaintiff would have received an inheritance;

3.         The third party had knowledge of the plaintiff’s inheritance and took actions to interfere with it;

4.         The interference was made by independently tortious means (i.e., the underlying interference must be wrong for a reason other than for the interference itself); and

5.         The plaintiff sustained damages.

The appellate court ruled that Brent had not properly alleged facts sufficient to support a claim for IIEI. However, since the trial court did not give Brent the opportunity to amend his complaint to remedy this problem, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and transferred the matter back to the trial court and allowed Brent to amend his complaint.

If you would like to discuss this or other trusts and estates issues, please contact the attorneys at Drucker Law Offices, 468 North Camden Drive, 2nd Floor, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, 310.285.5375 Tel, 310.444.9754 Fax, www.druckerlaw.com

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