At least 25 states have recognized the tort of intentional interference with an expected inheritance (IIEI). Now, for the first time, a California appellate court has joined them. Beckwith v. Dahl (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 1039.
Beckwith and his partner, Marc MacGinnis, had been in a long-term committed relationship for almost 10 years. At some point, MacGinnis showed Beckwith a will he had prepared in his computer which left half of his estate to Beckwith and the other half to MacGinnis’ estranged sister, Susan Dahl. MacGinnis never printed out or signed the will. MacGinnis’ health began to decline and he was hospitalized facing surgery on his lungs. He asked Beckwith to locate and print the will so he could sign it, but Beckwith couldn’t find it. He then asked Beckwith to create a new will for him to sign, and this Beckwith was able to do. The new will left MacGinnis’ estate in equal shares to Beckwith and Dahl.
Before he presented the new will to MacGinnis, Beckwith called Dahl to tell her about it, and emailed her a copy. She emailed back proposing that she have two attorney friends draw up a trust for MacGinnis rather than the will which would need to be probated. She told Beckwith the trust document would be prepared in the next couple of days. Dahl never presented a document to MacGinnis before he died. Neither did Beckwith.
Two weeks after MacGinnis’ death, Dahl opened a probate proceeding but did not identify Beckwith as an interested party and did not send him copies of any pleadings. When Beckwith started making inquiries, she did not respond until she wrote to inform him that the court had determined that MacGinnis died intestate so that his estate went to her. Beckwith’s opposition to the petition for distribution was dismissed when the court found that Beckwith had no standing.
Beckwith subsequently filed an action alleging IIEI, deceit by false promise, and negligence. Dahl’s demurrer was sustained as to all three causes of action, without leave to amend.
The Court of Appeal reversed. “Beckwith argues we should join the majority of other states in recognizing the tort of IIEI as a valid cause of action. We agree it is time to officially recognize this tort claim.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court invoked the maxim that “[f]or every wrong there is a remedy.” Any threat of damage to the integrity of the probate system can be avoided, the Court stated, by requiring that where a probate remedy is available, it must be pursued so that “the tort of IIEI is only available when the aggrieved party has essentially been deprived of access to the probate system.” Citing decisions that have recognized other interference torts that protect only expectancies (interference with at-will employment, interference with prospective economic advantage), the Court further concluded that the fact that the underlying promises might not be enforceable, or that the expectancy might be too speculative, are not sufficient reasons to refuse to recognize the tort altogether: an essential element of the cause of action as recognized in other states is “that there was a reasonable certainty that, but for the interference, the plaintiff would have received the inheritance.” Other elements of the tort are: expectation of receiving an inheritance; intentional interference with that expectancy by a third person; intent–defendant knew about the expectancy and deliberately acted to interfere with it; the interference was independently wrongful or tortious; and damages.
Having recognized and defined the new tort, the Court then examined the sufficiency of the pleadings in this case. The Court found the allegations insufficient to state a cause of action for intentional interference with expected inheritance, but remanded to allow leave to amend.