Catanese & Wells, A Law Corporation provides a quarterly newsletter to the California probate and trust professional community including lawyers, accountants, professional fiduciaries and insurance providers. www.cataneselaw.com.
This issue of the Probate and Trust Legal Summary focuses on the California Appellate Court case Beckwith v. Dahl decided in May of 2012 (205 Cal. App.4th 1039). The Beckwith case confirmed California's acceptance of a new tort known as intentional interference with expected inheritance.
In the Beckwith case the plaintiff suffered a loss in the trial court when the trial court dismissed the plaintiff's complaint for intentional interference with an expected inheritance at the request of the defendant. The trial court dismissed the claim finding that it was not recognized as a tort in the state of California. The plaintiff appealed arguing that the appellate court should recognize a new tort for intentional interference with an expected inheritance. The appellate court acted to recognize the tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance. In its decision the appellate court relied on equitable grounds stating that the tort should be recognized to afford an injured plaintiff a remedy.
In California a plaintiff must allege and prove five distinct elements to prevail on this tort. The elements of the claim are: (i) the plaintiff must plead and prove an expectancy of an inheritance; (ii) the plaintiff must allege and prove causation, meaning there was a reasonable degree of certainty that the plaintiff would have received the gift at the time of the testator's death if there had been no interference by the defendant; (iii) the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff's expectancy of inheritance and deliberately interfered with the plaintiff's rights; (iv) the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant interfered by conduct which was wrong for reasons other than the mere fact of the interference; and, (v) the plaintiff must plead and prove actual damage by reason of the defendant's acts of interference. As a limitation on this tort, the appellate court also indicated that the defendant's tortious conduct must be directed to the settlor or the testator and not at the plaintiff. An example would be a defendant who influenced a testator to execute a new will in the defendant's favor or where the defendant refused to complete a will in favor of a plaintiff after agreeing to do so with the testator. Further, the new tort is not to be an independent basis for fraud or undue influence claims. The policy behind the tort is to protect the deceased testator's right to dispose of property freely and without improper interference.
The tort of intentional interference with an expected inheritance will give beneficiaries an additional means to protect their rights not already covered by other torts such as fraud and interference with prospective economic advantage. For those who are involved in the preparation of estate documents, whether an attorney, a trusted advisor or a family member, great care must be exercised to avoid a later claim that interference of an expected inheritance occurred regarding a beneficiary of the settlor or testator.
For further guidance regarding the above, the reader is encouraged to contact the legal offices of Catanese & Wells, A Law Corporation at www.cataneselaw.com or by telephone at (818)707-0407.