On May 3, 2012, in the case of Beckwith v. Dahl (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 1039, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, issued a unanimous published decision officially recognizing a new tort claim in California for Intentional Interference with Expected Inheritance (IIEI). In recognizing the new IIEI tort, California now joins the majority of other states recognizing IIEI as a valid cause of action.
What is IIEI?
IIEI is a cause of action that protects individuals who have been unexpectedly disinherited as a result of the intentional, wrongful interference of a third party. Common fact scenarios involve: a third party's actions preventing a person from signing a will; the intentional alteration of another's will; the tortious suppression or destruction of a will; the tortious depletion of a testator's estate; and even the tortious inducement to execute/not execute/revoke/not revoke a will depriving the intended beneficiary of his or her expected inheritance.
In general, such misconduct is dealt is addressed in the context of California's probate system. However, in certain instances, individuals may lack standing in probate because they may not technically qualify as an "interested person" under the Probate Code. As a result, those individuals are left without any probate remedy. IIEI closes that gap by providing a legal remedy in civil court to persons who reasonably expected to receive an inheritance but who, as a result of the intentional wrongdoing of a third party were deprived of that expectancy. Now, under Beckwith v Dahl, those victims have a remedy under California law that did not previously exist.
Who Benefits From the New IIEI Tort?
Any individual or entity that has been wrongfully deprived of a reasonably expected inheritance as a result of the wrongful interference of a third party, but lacks standing in probate, may now find a remedy in civil court under a theory of IIEI. Common examples involve intended beneficiaries who are not recognized family members, such as cohabitating, unmarried couples, same-sex couples, third party caregivers, charitable organizations, and even close friends of the testator.
Background of the Beckwith v. Dahl Case.
The facts in Beckwith v. Dahl illustrate the nature of the claim. The complaint alleges that Beckwith and his long-term, same-sex partner, Marc Christian MacGinnis, did not register as domestic partners. MacGinnis prepared a will giving half of his estate to Beckwith and half to his sister, Susan Dahl. While MacGinnis was hospitalized awaiting surgery, he asked Beckwith to print his will to sign before surgery. Beckwith could not find the will on the computer so MacGinnis asked him to prepare a new one. Beckwith did so. But before presenting the will to MacGinnis, Beckwith emailed it to Dahl for her comments. Dahl implored Beckwith not to present MacGinnis with the will insisting that a trust would be more beneficial for both of them. Dahl promised to take care of it and have trust documents prepared right away. Dahl, however, didn't follow through with her promise. MacGinnis died after the surgery without a signed will. Beckwith contends that Dahl lied to him, that she wrongfully interfered to prevent MacGinnis from signing his will—by means of fraud and deceit—in order to prevent MacGinnis from giving half of his estate to Beckwith and thereby making Dahl by default the sole beneficiary of the entire estate.
In probate court, Dahl was deemed the sole beneficiary and Beckwith found himself wholly disinherited. Unmarried and unregistered, Beckwith's claim was tossed out of probate court. Beckwith then filed suit in civil court alleging a cause of action for IIEI. The trial court dismissed the claim on the basis that it was not a recognized cause of action in California. The appellate court reversed, declaring "it is time to officially recognize this tort claim" and granting Beckwith leave to amend his complaint to state a claim for IIEI.
Elements of IIEI
The Court of Appeal outlined the five (5) necessary elements to plead a civil claim for IIEI as follows:
1. The plaintiff must plead he or she had an expectancy of an inheritance.
2. The complaint must allege causation.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. The plaintiff must plead he or she was damaged by the defendant's interference.
Civil litigation practitioners and judges, as well as probate counsel judges alike, should familiarize themselves with the elements of the new IIEI tort and the analysis in Beckwith v Dahl (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 1039 to determine when an IIEI claim might be appropriate to pursue and to advise clients who may have an IIEI claim to prosecute or defend.