California has finally joined the majority of states and recognized the tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance (“IIEI”). This adoption was done by the California Court of Appeals based on the fact that the IIEI claim is consistent with other California laws, the fact that of the 42 states that have considered adopting an IIEI claim, 25 states have adopted the claim, that the US Supreme Court has called IIEI as “widely recognized” tort, and other public policy considerations.
The ruling came out of the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District, after the deceased's longtime partner was denied any inheritance by the California probate court. Brent Beckwith was in a committed relationship for nearly 10 years with partner Marc Christian MacGinnis. MacGinnis had no living family members other than his sister, Susan Dahl. But MacGinnis was estranged from his sister.
At one point, MacGinnis showed Beckwith a will on his computer that divided his $1 million plus estate between Beckwith and Dahl. MacGinnis never signed the will. MacGinnis wanted to print and sign the will, but was never able to do so. MacGinnis later fell ill. He asked Beckwith to print the will. When Beckwith couldn't locate the will, MacGinnis asked Beckwith to prepare a new will, based on the distribution plan MacGinnis had already discussed with Beckwith. When Beckwith called Dahl to discuss the will, Dahl claimed that she had friends who were attorneys and she would have them draft a trust for MacGinnis, which she claimed was more appropriate for her brother. She told Beckwith not to give the new will to MacGinnis for signing. A few days later, MacGinnis went in for surgery. The doctors told Dahl that MacGinnis may not recover from the surgery. However, because Beckwith “was not family”, the doctors did not tell him about the potential risks of the surgery. Dahl did not share this information with Beckwith nor did she ever give MacGinnis any trust documents to sign. MacGinnis later died without signing any estate planning documents.
Since he did not have an estate plan, Dahl was able to successfully claim that she was the sole heir to MacGinnis' sizable estate. Beckwith disputed Dahl's claims, but since California's rules of intestate succession do not recognize MacGinnis' partner of nearly 10 years, Beckwith got nothing. Beckwith later sued, claiming that Dahl had improperly interfered with his expected inheritance. The result was the court recognizing a new claim for IIEI.
In California, a plaintiff may plead an IIEI claim only if a probate remedy is not available. The California Court identified the five specific 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.”
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