You Can Now Get Sued for Interfering with an Expected Inheritance in California

As always nothing provided in this BRIEF post should be considered legal advice.

I am not sure how this flew under my radar for so long but according to Wealth Management there is a new tort on the books in California.  The tort is Interfering with an Expected Inheritance.  For those that are not familiar with the term, a tort is a civil wrong and rather than be found “guilty” one is to be found liable.  Most Causes of Action that a lay person might think about suing for outside of contract or real property law are usually torts (i.e. your battery, assault, libel, defamation, etc.).

In Estate Planning the common causes of action across the Country are:

  • Undue Influence
  • Fraud
  • Duress
  • Lack of Capacity

That being said The Court in Beckwith (facts outlined below) indicated that 25 States already have the tort on their books, so it should be interesting to see if the remaining States follow California (often happens).

Beckwith v. Dahl

Throughout Law School I loved reading appellate briefs that made the facts of the case seem so simple even though there had been years of litigation prior to appeal.  The Court did a great job in laying out the facts so why mess with their work,

Marc Christian MacGinnis Beckwith and his partner, Marc Christian MacGinnis (MacGinnis), were in a long-term, committed relationship for almost 10 years. They leased an apartment together and were occasional business partners. MacGinnis had no children and his parents were deceased. His sister, Susan Dahl, with whom he had an estranged relationship, was his only other living family. At some point during their relationship, MacGinnis showed Beckwith a will he had saved on his computer. The will stated that upon MacGinnis‟s death, his estate was to be divided equally between Beckwith and Dahl. MacGinnis never printed or signed the will.

In May 2009, MacGinnis’s health began to decline. On May 25, 2009, MacGinnis was in the hospital awaiting surgery to repair holes in his lungs. He asked Beckwith to locate and print the will so he could sign it. Beckwith went to their home and looked for the will, but he could not find it. When Beckwith told MacGinnis that he could not locate the will, MacGinnis asked Beckwith to create a new will so he could sign it the next day. That night, Beckwith created a new will for MacGinnis using forms downloaded from the Internet. The will stated: “…I [MacGinnis] give all the rest, residue and remainder of my property and estate, both real and personal, of whatever kind and wherever located, that I own or to which I shall be in any manner entitled at the time of my death (collectively referred to as my “residuary estate”), as follows: (a) If Brent Beckwith and Susan Dahl survive me, to those named in clause (a) who survive me in equal shares.”

Before Beckwith presented the will to MacGinnis, he called Dahl to tell her about the will and e-mailed her a copy. Later that night, Dahl responded to Beckwith’s e-mail stating: “I really think we should look into a Trust for [MacGinnis ]. There are far less regulations and it does not go through probate. The house and all property would be in our names and if something should happen to [MacGinnis] we could make decisions without it going to probate and the taxes are less on a trust rather than the normal inheritance tax. I have [two] very good friends [who] are attorneys and I will call them tonight.‟ [Emphasis added.]” After receiving the e-mail, Beckwith called Dahl to discuss the details of the living trust. Dahl told Beckwith not to present the will to MacGinnis for signature because one of her friends would prepare the trust documents for MacGinnis to sign “in the next couple [of] days.” Beckwith did not present the will to MacGinnis.

Two days later, on May 27, MacGinnis had surgery on his lungs. Although the doctors informed Dahl there was a chance MacGinnis would not survive the surgery, the doctors could not discuss the matter with Beckwith since he was not a family member under the law. Nor did Dahl tell Beckwith about the risks associated with the surgery. Dahl never gave MacGinnis any trust documents to sign. After the surgery, MacGinnis was placed on a ventilator and his prognosis worsened. Six days later, Dahl, following the doctors‟ recommendations, removed MacGinnis from the ventilator. On June 2, 2009, MacGinnis died intestate. He left an estate worth over $1 million.

2. The Probate Proceedings

Following MacGinnis‟s death, Beckwith and Dahl met to discuss the disposition of MacGinnis‟s personal property. After Beckwith suggested they find the will that MacGinnis prepared, Dahl told Beckwith “we don‟t need a will.” Two weeks after MacGinnis‟ death, on June 17, 2009, Dahl opened probate in Los Angeles Superior Court. Dahl verbally informed Beckwith that she had opened probate, but she did not send him any copies of the probate filings. In the filing, she did not identify Beckwith as an interested party. Dahl also applied to become the administrator of the estate.

In September 2009, Beckwith began to ask Dahl for details of the probate case. Dahl informed Beckwith that she had not had any contact with the probate attorney so she did not know anything. On October 2, 2009, Beckwith looked up the probate case online. He then sent Dahl an e-mail stating: In case you hadn’t had a chance to talk to speak [sic] with the probate attorney, I looked up [MacGinnis‟s] probate case on-line http://www.lasuperiorcourt.org/Probate/ and the next hearing date is not until 8/27/10, so unfortunately as expected it is going to take over a year from [MacGinnis's] passing until we get our proceeds from the estate.‟ [Emphasis added.]” When Dahl did not respond, Beckwith sent her another e-mail on December 2, 2009, asking if she needed any information from him regarding the distribution of MacGinnis‟s assets. Again, Dahl did not respond. Beckwith e-mailed Dahl again on December 18, 2009, asking about the probate proceedings. This time Dahl responded by e-mail, stating: “Because [MacGinnis] died without a will, and the estate went into probate, I was made executor of his estate. The court then declared that his assets would go to his only surviving family

Elements of Interference with an Expected Inheritance

According to the Court in Beckwith the common elements across the Country are:

  1. an expectation of receiving an inheritance;
  2. intentional interference with that expectancy by a third party
  3. the interference was independently wrongful or tortious;
  4. there was a reasonable certainty that, but for the interference, the plaintiff would have received the inheritance; and
  5. damages.

Most states prohibit an interference action when the plaintiff already has an adequate probate remedy.

I could see how bad facts could cause a problem with mixing up element three with duress or undue influence.  Considering how many JXN already have the tort I am sure it has worked itself out in the Courts already.

 

Have you ever had experience with Estate Contests or this Tort in General?

2 Responses to You Can Now Get Sued for Interfering with an Expected Inheritance in California

  1. Wow! Wish that had existed in Arizona 15 or 20 years ago. While we were in the middle of a divorce (amicable, on the surface), my then-soon-to-be-ex-husband quietly got together with my father and persuaded him to rewrite his will, cutting me out.

    As part of my financial planning for how I was going to survive on my own, I assumed I would inherit about $100,000 from my father, as promised. This, I figured, when added to retirement savings I already had, would see me through my dotage. So it was a bit of a surprise to find, after my father died, that the two of them had secretly changed that and routed the money to my extraordinarily unpleasant stepmother, on whom none of my love was lost (nor, toward the end, was much of my father’s…). Her daughter was a superior court judge with a reputation for making capricious decisions, and so even though three different lawyers opined that the ex- had committed malpractice, I couldn’t get any of them to represent me.

    Sure would have been nice to have a city or state prosecutor in a position to go after him.

    • Wow! That sounds terrible. You sound a lot healthier about the situation than I would express! Is the stepmom still alive? any siblings who got screwed too?

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