Will contests are usually claims by jilted family members that the decedent was incompetent or under duress when the will was signed. The courts have traditionally been very reluctant to alter the written directions of a testator, unless the complaining party could clearly show that at the time the document was executed, the testator didn’t know what he owned or who were the “natural objects of the testator’s bounty.” In essence, the testator must be so mentally impaired that he didn’t know what he was doing. Another basis for court intervention is evidence of duress. If an individual is coerced to sign a will or trust by threat or intimidation, the court won’t allow such conduct to stand. Conduct is more carefully scrutinized if the bad actor is a fiduciary or caregiver of the testator. Nonetheless, if the testator wanted to give his estate to the friendly next door neighbor instead of his loving wife, a court would enforce his intent. Sometimes, even when the facts were unsavory, a court could do nothing to ameliorate shady bequests.
In an effort to address one category of untoward conduct, the California Court of Appeal has created a new tort to give courts a chance to test the conduct of a beneficiary by standards reflecting societal mores.
A California intermediate appeals court recently used a set of egregious facts in Beckwith v. Dahl1 to create the tort of interference with expected inheritance.
The plaintiff, Brent Beckwith, and his male partner (the decedent) were in a long-term committed relationship. The decedent had a will on his computer bequeathing one half of his estate to his partner and one half to his estranged sister, Susan Dahl. However, the decedent never signed the will. When the decedent became ill, he asked Brent to have the will printed and given to the decedent to sign. When Susan was told of this and exclusively informed that her brother’s chances of surviving the surgery were poor, she took various actions to successfully deny the testator the opportunity to sign the will and falsely represented to the plaintiff that she would provide testamentary documents to her brother. Thereafter, she unsuccessfully made further false representations to the plaintiff to discourage him from taking legal action in a timely manner. The trial court ruled that since the plaintiff was not an intestate beneficiary, he had no standing to assert probate remedies and any fraud was against the testator. No tort for interfering with an expected inheritance exists in California, so the court dismissed the case.
Elements of Claim
The appellate court ruled that there should be a remedy for this wrong. It reasoned that this new tort may be asserted when the defendant’s tortious conduct is directed at harming the plaintiff, rather than the testator. The elements of the new tort are:
1. Plaintiff has a legitimate expectancy of inheritance;
2. Plaintiff would probably have received the bequest absent interference;
3. The defendant knew of plaintiff’s expectancy and took deliberate action to interfere with it;
4. The interference was independently wrongful;
5. The interference caused plaintiff damages; and
6. Defendant’s wrongful conduct was directed at the testator.
In sum, when the wrongful conduct is directed at the beneficiary, traditional remedies for fraud may apply. When the tortious conduct is directed at the testator, but is designed to interfere with another’s expectation of inheritance, the injured party now has an independent action in tort, if the above elements are present.
There will be many factual scenarios that will now result in beneficiaries, whose champagne dreams are dashed, asserting potential claims of interference with expected inheritance.
A simple example may be the common situation in which there are multiple siblings, one of whom is in more direct contact with the testator than the others. Certainly, the absent siblings have a legitimate expectancy of inheritance and may have even been named in a prior will or trust as an equal. The local sibling begins a campaign of disinformation with the testator. He continually tells false and denigrating stories about absent siblings, finally resulting in a new, and often secret, testamentary document adverse to the absent siblings.
It’s also foreseeable that there will be many circumstances in which a testator may wish to disinherit an absent child based only on a feeling of neglect. Yet, one can predict many claims being made that such a change of heart was the result of tortious and defamatory conduct.
Whenever a new tort is created, it takes time for the courts to fix the boundaries of its application. If this decision isn’t reversed, I anticipate a long, winding road of cases further delineating the claim of intentional interference with an expected inheritance.
1. Beckwith v. Dahl, 205 Cal.App.4th 1039 (May 3, 2012).