Intentional Interference With An Expected Inheritance Is Actionable
Beckwith v. Dahl
(Cal. Ct. of App., 4th Dist.), filed May 3, 2012
Brent Beckwith and his partner, Marc Christian 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 provided that MacGinnis’ estate be divided equally between Beckwith and Dahl.
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 urging that MacGinnis use a living trust to divide his property in the event of his death. Dahl stated: “I have [two] very good friends [who] are attorneys and I will call them tonight.” 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.
As MacGinnis’ only living relative, Dahl inherited the entire estate.
Beckwith sued Dahl alleging intentional interference with an expected inheritance (IIEI), deceit by false promise, and negligence. In the complaint, Beckwith asserted Dahl interfered with his expected inheritance of one half of MacGinnis’s estate by lying to him about her intention to prepare a living trust for MacGinnis to sign. Beckwith further alleged Dahl made these false promises in order to “caus[e] a sufficient delay to prevent [MacGinnis] from signing his will before his surgery” because she knew that if MacGinnis died without a will, she would inherit the entire estate. Finally, Beckwith claimed that as a result of his reliance on Dahl’s promises, “he was deprived of his . . . share of [MacGinnis’s] estate,” and because he had no standing in probate court, a civil action against Dahl was his only remedy.
Dahl demurred to all three causes of action. As to the IIEI cause of action, she argued the “claim fails on its face” because “California does not recognize a cause of action for ‘interference with inheritance.’” Further, Dahl argued California should not recognize such a cause of action because doing so would “be inconsistent with already established legal principals embodied in the probate arena and other areas of the law.” Dahl demurred to the fraud cause of action alleging her statements regarding the preparation of trust documents were too vague to constitute actionable fraud, Beckwith’s damages were not caused by her statements, and Beckwith did not have a vested interest in MacGinnis’s estate. Finally, Dahl’s demurrer to the negligence claim alleged Beckwith had not pled the requisite duty or causation to state a claim.
The trial court sustained Dahl’s demurrer and dismissed.
HOLDING & REASONING
The Court of Appeal reversed. In doing so, it recognized a new tort in California: intentional interference with an expected inheritance (IIEI).
To state a claim for IIEI, a plaintiff must allege five distinct elements.
First, the plaintiff must plead he had an expectancy of an inheritance. It is not necessary to allege that “one is in fact named as a beneficiary in the will or that one has been devised the particular property at issue. That requirement would defeat the purpose of an expectancy claim. It is only the expectation that one will receive some interest that gives rise to a cause of action.” Second, as in other interference torts, the complaint must allege causation. “This means that, as in other cases involving recovery for loss of expectancies . . . there must be proof amounting to a reasonable degree of certainty that the bequest or devise would have been in effect at the time of the death of the testator . . . if there had been no such interference.” Third, the plaintiff must plead intent, i.e., that the defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy of inheritance and took deliberate action to interfere with it. Fourth, the complaint must allege that the interference was conducted by independently tortious means, i.e., the underlying conduct must be wrong for some reason other than the fact of the interference. Finally, the plaintiff must plead he was damaged by the defendant’s interference.
Additionally, an IIEI defendant must direct the independently tortious conduct at someone other than the plaintiff . . . . In other words, the defendant’s tortious conduct must have induced or caused the testator to take some action that deprives the plaintiff of his expected inheritance.
In recognizing the new tort, the court observed that tort law is not static and when a new tort deserves recognition, it will be recognized. It noted that “Twenty-five of the forty-two states that have considered it have validated it.”
The court considered the relevant policy considerations and balance the benefits of recognizing a new tort against any potential burdens and costs that recognition of the tort would bring.
The tort of IIEI developed under the “general principle of law that whenever the law prohibits an injury it will also afford a remedy.” This is consistent with the maxim of California jurisprudence that, “[f]or every wrong there is a remedy.” It is also consistent with the principle that “[e]very person is bound, without contract, to abstain from injuring the person or property of another, or infringing upon any of his or her rights.”Lucas v. Hamm, 56 Cal.2d 583 (1961) holds that intended beneficiaries of wills can recover in tort against a negligent drafter of the will despite a lack of privity, because if such plaintiffs were precluded from bringing a tort claim, no one would be able to do so and the policy of preventing future harm would be impaired, supported the creation of a new remedy.
The court considered that “recognition of the IIEI tort could enable plaintiffs to usurp a testator’s true intent by bypassing these stringent probate requirements.” However, a balance can be achieved by prohibiting a tort action where the remedy of a will contest is available and would provide the injured party with adequate relief.
In balancing the benefits and burdens of recognizing a new tort, the court considered the factors that led the California Supreme Court to reject torts of spoliation of evidence. The factors that led to the rejection of spoliation of evidence claims supported the creation of a new IIEI tort claim. And, the factors that supported other torts based on expectations, such as interference with prospective economic advantage, supported the creation of an IIEI tort claim.
Apart from recognizing a new tort, the court held that Beckwith’s complaint against Dahl adequately alleged a cause of action for fraud in that she made representations that induced him to delay having MacGinnis execute the will he had wanted to execute.
Although the court recognized a new tort, this case is not over. Beckwith might still have difficulty pleading and proving all of the elements of that new tort. A cause of action for IIEI requires that the defendant’s conduct be directed toward the testator, and Beckwith may not be able show that Dahl directed any conduct toward MacGinnis.