The comprehensive guide to probate, trusts, estate planning, and inheritance litigation.

Intentional Interference With The Expectancy of Inheritance in California

What is Intentional Interference with the Expectancy of Inheritance?

In California, intentional interference with expectancy of inheritance is a cause of action available when there is no adequate probate remedy. Intentional interference with an expectancy was officially recognized in California in 2012, in Beckwith v. Dahl.

What Do I Need to Prove to Show Intentional Interference With The Expectancy of Inheritance in California?

Intentional interference with an expectancy has five elements:

  1. The plaintiff had an expectancy of an inheritance;
  2. The defendant interfered with plaintiff’s expectancy through independently tortious conduct directed at the testator;
  3. The defendant acted with requisite intent;
  4. The defendant’s actions caused the testator to exclude the plaintiff from his or her estate plan;
  5. Damages

When Can I Bring An Action For Intentional Interference with the Expectancy of Inheritance?

You can bring an action for intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance in California if:

  1. You have no independent tort action because the tort was directed at the testator, and;
  2. You have no adequate remedy in probate.

Said in plain English, if you can bring a direct action in probate court, most commonly a challenge to the validity of the will, you do not have the ability to bring an action for intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance.  California law and public policy is to handle claims concerning a decedent’s assets in probate court.  The California legislature has established a set of rules to apply in probate disputes, which are at risk of being circumvented if people could arbitrarily choose where and how to file inheritance disputes.

In order to bring a claim for intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance in California, you have to show that the relief you are seeking is unavailable in probate. However, if you blew a deadline or ignored a probate proceeding that you had notice of, where you could have pled your claim for relief, you do not have the option of pursuing an intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance claim.

When Is There No Adequate Remedy In Probate?

Examples of when there could be no adequate remedy in probate (meaning you might be able to bring an intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance action) are:

  • You are not a legally recognized heir and decedent was tortiously prevented from executing a will leaving you a bequest
  • When the challenged devise is in a trust
  • Depleted estates
  • Fraudulent conduct preventing you from pursuing a probate remedy

There is only an adequate probate remedy if the distribution of assets that the challenger is seeking can be achieved in a probate proceeding.

Case Study – Beckwith v. Dahl

In Beckwith v. Dahl, California officially recognized the tort of intentional interference with the expectancy of an inheritance.

Beckwith and MacGinnis were longtime partners. MacGinnis had an estate valued at about $1,000,000. MacGinnis died with an unsigned will that left ½ of his estate to Beckwith, and the other half to his sister.  MacGinnis was in the hospital and asked Beckwith to bring him the will so he could sign it.  Beckwith could not find the will.  MacGinnis requested that Beckwith prepare a will with the same provisions.  Beckwith prepared the will.  Beckwith emailed the will to MacGinnis’ sister.

Doctors told MacGinnis’ sister that the surgery to be performed on MacGinnis while he was in the hospital was high-risk and could result in MacGinnis’ death. The doctors did not share this with Beckwith because he was not next of kin. The sister did not share this information with Beckwith. Instead, she told Beckwith that the will was unnecessary and that she would have a trust prepared for her brother after the surgery. MacGinnis died as a result of the surgery and did not sign a will or trust. He died intestate.

The sister then petitioned for the intestate probate of MacGinnis’ estate. Under California intestacy laws, Beckwith would get nothing.

Beckwith sued for intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance. The trial court dismissed the claim on the grounds that California did not recognize the tort. The appellate court reversed, and officially recognized the tort of intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance in California.

Beckwith had no probate remedy because he was not a recognized heir under California law. He could not sue in probate because he would not have standing. But, since the sister arguably interfered with MacGinnis’ intent to leave Beckwith ½ of the estate, Beckwith could state a cause of action against the sister for intentional interference with an expectancy in California.

The tort of intentional interference with the expectancy of inheritance is relatively new in California.  Other states, like Florida, have a more well developed body of law on the tort.  Time will tell how the tort is limited or expanded under California law.

 

Sign up with Probate Stars to receive the latest probate news and information about lawyer sign ups.