A new tort in California law.
Forbes online reports California joins majority of states in recognizing tort — Intentional Interference With Expected Inheritance. Here’s what the article says:
In Beckwith v. Dahl (May 3, 2012), the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, joined the majority of states in recognizing the tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance (IIEI).
“[I]t is time to officially recognize this tort claim,” writes Justice Kathleen O’Leary in the Court’s option.
The Court of Appeals adopted IIEI based on policy, on the fact that IIEI is consistent with California law, and on the fact that a majority of the states have adopted it. Twenty-five of the forty-two states that have considered IIEI have adopted it, and the United States Supreme Court called IIEI a “widely recognized” tort.
Marc Christian MacGinnis was in a committed relationship with Brent Beckwith for almost 10 years. MacGinnis’ only living family was his sister, Susan Dahl; he had no children and his parents were deceased. But MacGinnis’ relationship with his sister was estranged.
MacGinnis had a will on his computer that divided his estate equally between Beckwith and Dahl. At some point, MacGinnis showed this will to Beckwith, but MacGinnis never printed or signed the will.
MacGinnis wanted to print and sign this will, but he was not able to. MacGinnis got ill in May 2009 and needed surgery to repair holes in his lungs. He asked Beckwith to find and print the will. But Beckwith could not find it.
MacGinnis asked Beckwith to draft a new will. Beckwith downloaded a will from the internet, and e-mailed the draft to Dahl and called her to discuss it. Like the first will that MacGinnis had on his computer, the will that Beckwith drafted also divided MacGinnis’ estate between Beckwith and Dahl. But, again, MacGinnis did not sign the new will.
The problem this time was that Dahl raised objections. Dahl told Beckwith that the should not show the new will to MacGinnis because a trust-based plan has advantages over a plan that is controlled by a will. Dahl said that she has “very good friends [who] are attorneys” and that one of these friends would prepare the trust documents for MacGinnis to sign “in the next couple [of] days.”
MacGinnis never got an opportunity to sign the new will or a trust-based plan. Two days after Beckwith’s conversation with Dahl, MacGinnis had surgery. Doctors told Dahl that MacGinnis might not survive the surgery, but they did not tell Beckwith “because he was not a family member under the law.” Dahl did not share this information with Beckwith.
After his surgery, MacGinnis was placed on a ventilator, his condition worsened, and he died a few days after. MacGinnis had an estate worth over $1 million but no estate plan that would provide for Beckwith. Because he left no will and no trust, MacGinnis could not provide for his committed partner of almost ten years. MacGinnis had good intentions, but he did not give them legal effect. As a result, MacGinnis’ estate is controlled by the default descent rules in California. His wishes are in direct conflict with these rules, which give nothing to Beckwith because they do not consider him family.
Dahl eventually informed Beckwith of the fact that he has been disinherited: “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 member which is me.”
Beckwith opposed the distribution of the estate to Dahl. But the probate judge found that Beckwith had no standing because Beckwith is not a creditor and is not someone with “intestate rights.”
Beckwith then started a civil action, alleging (1) IIEI, (2) deceit by false promise, and (3) negligence. The trial court dismissed Beckwith’s complaint. Regarding the first allegation, the trial court stated that it was up to the appellate court to recognize a new tort for IIEI.
The Court of Appeals recognized the claim of IIEI, but the Court of Appeals made the tort action available only when a probate remedy is not available.
The Court of Appeals identified the “five distinct elements” that a plaintiff must allege to state a claim for IIEI:
1. Expectation of inheritance. The plaintiff must plead that he or she had an expectancy of receiving an inheritance.
2. Causation. “[T]here must be proof amounting to a reasonable degree of certainty that he bequest or devise would have been in effect at the time of the death . . . if there had been no such interference.”
3. Intent. “[T]he defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy of inheritance and took deliberate action to interfere with it.”
4. Tortious interference. “[T]he 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.”
5. Damage. “[T]he plaintiff must plead that he was damaged by the defendant’s interference.”
The Court of Appeals added another element:
• Harm to someone other than plaintiff. “[D]efendnat must direct the independently tortious conduct at someone other than the plaintiff.” The “fraud, duress, undue influence, or other independent tortious conduct” should be “directed at the testator.” “[T]he defendant’s tortious conduct must have induced or caused the testator to take some action that deprives the plaintiff of his expected inheritance.” Cases might permit interference that was not directed at the testator, but the tortious interference cannot be directed solely at the plaintiff.
The Court of Appeals held that Beckwith’s complaint did not allege sufficient facts to support this claim. Specifically, he did not allege facts to support the sixth element: “Beckwith did not allege Dahl directed any independently tortious conduct at MacGinnis. The only wrongful conduct alleged in Beckwith’s complaint was Dahl’s false promise to him.” The Court gave Beckwith an opportunity to amend the complaint. (It also found that Beckwith’s complaint satisfied the elements of promissory fraud, the second allegation.)
“For each of the elements of an IIEI claim, future courts will flesh out what specific conduct does or does not satisfy it,” writes Randy Spiro, a super lawyer in California with dual specialization in estate planning and taxation. Beckwith’s case might provide such an opportunity.
Estate Planning Lesson
The takeaway that Ryan Cunningham, an Associate in Hopkins & Carley’s Trust & Estate Litigation department, noted is salient: “There is a new, but narrow, cause of action in California, the IIEI.”
But there is also a broader estate planning lesson that is worth emphasizing. MacGinnis unintentionally disinherited his partner of almost ten years, Beckwith. He could have avoided this with proper estate planning. Statistics show that, like MacGinnis, most people do not have estate plans that reflect their intent and that are up-to-date. You should learn from the mistakes of others: Create a plan for your estate and create this plan as soon as possible. The purpose of an estate plan is to ensure your loved ones are taken care of according to your intent. Be proactive and take action while you can.