Intentional Interference With Expected Inheritance in California — Probate Avoidance

From the desk of San Diego Estate Planning Attorney, Kristina R. Hess (Haymes)

With Research and Contribution by Klint LeBlang

The California courts have added a new tort to the legal system that may affect you and your inheritance. The tort is intentional interference with expected inheritance or IIEI. Although its reach is relatively minor, heirs and those inheriting property or those who have been unwittingly disinherited, should understand where they may have a claim.

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, brought IIEI into California law on May 3, 2012 when deciding the case of Beckwith v. Dahl, 205 Cal.App.4th 1039. California is one of 25 states to recognize IIEI as a valid tort claim, which includes courts in such San Diego, Los Angeles, Monterey, etc. The highest court of our land, the United States Supreme Court, has previously recognized the tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance.

The Beckwith Case

In the Beckwith case, Brent Beckwith and decedent, Marc Christian MacGinnins, were in a committed relationship for about 10 years. They leased an apartment together and were involved in a few business ventures together. MacGinnins had no living family members except for his sister, Susan Dahl, the defendant.  Upon MacGinnins’ death, Dahl opened up a probate to address the disposition of MacGinnins’s property.  Because MacGinnins did not create a will or trust, his estate’s administration went through probate proceedings and left his partner completely disinherited.

Background

Beckwith argued with Dahl that MacGinnins in fact did have a will.  Beckwith alleged that MacGinnins created a will on his computer that equally distributed his assets to Beckwith and Dahl.  As MacGinnins’s health declined, MacGinnins asked Beckwith to print out the will so he could sign it.  Beckwith was unable to locate this will.  Therefore, MacGinnins asked Beckwith to create a new will for him to sign. Beckwith contacted Dahl to inform her of this will formation, which Dahl responded by telling Beckwith to not complete the will and let her look into forming a trust.  MacGinnins passed on before any testamentary instrument was created and thus, died intestate.

After Beckwith realized he was completely disinherited from MacGinnins’s estate, he filed a civil claim alleging IIEI, deceit by false promise, and negligence.  The trial court dismissed Beckwith’s complaint and he appealed. The Court of Appeals then was asked to determine if IIEI was a valid tort claim and if Beckwith is able to recover under that theory.

What is IIEI?

IIEI has five distinct elements:

1)      Expectation of inheritance (plaintiff had an expectancy of receiving inheritance);

2)      Causation (a bequest or devise would have been in effect at the time of death if there was no interference);

3)      Intent (the defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectant inheritance and took deliberate action to interfere with it);

4)      Tortious interference (the interference was conducted by independently tortious means);

5)      Damage (plaintiff was damaged by defendant’s interference).

Along with these five elements, California has added another element the plaintiff must prove. The defendant’s tortious conduct must be directed at someone other than the plaintiff (i.e. directed at the testator causing the testator to deprive the plaintiff of an expected inheritance). Further, this tort action is only available if a probate remedy is not available.

Beckwith Is Shut-Out

Based on the above elements, the Court of Appeals held that Beckwith could not establish a valid IIEI claim.  Although Beckwith can satisfy most of the elements, he is unable to show that Dahl exercised any tortious conduct over MacGinnins.  Rather, Dahl strictly directed the conduct towards Beckwith. Therefore, Beckwith was unable to recover and was unable to receive any inheritance from his partner of 10 years.

What We Can Learn From the Beckwith Case

It is critical for an individual to see an estate planner if he or she wants to have confidence in how their estate will be distributed after passing on.  Like MacGinnins, individuals have an idea of how they would like their estate distributed, but continually put off visiting an estate planner to establish a will or trust. With proper estate planning, you can ensure your loved ones are taken care based on your true intent.

If you have any further questions regarding this case or have questions about establishing either a will or trust, please contact our office at www.krhess.com.

Please note that this blog is not intended to provide legal advice and is for general informational purposes only.

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