California has joined the majority of states in allowing individuals to file a lawsuit against those who have intentionally and wrongfully interfered with their expected inheritance. The new tort of Intentional Interference with Expected Inheritance (“IIEI”) came about from the recent California appellate court case of Beckwith v. Dahl (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 1039 (“Beckwith”). 

In Beckwith, decedent Marc Christian McGinnis (“Marc”) and his partner Brent Beckwith (“Brent”) had been in a committed same-sex relationship for approximately ten years. Prior to his death, Marc had shown Brent a will which Marc had drafted and which left half of Marc’s assets to Brent and half to Marc’s sister, Susan Dahl (“Susan”). Though Susan and Marc had been estranged for some time, Susan was made aware of Marc’s intentions prior to his death. When Marc was on his deathbed, a copy of that specific will could not be located and it was agreed that Brent would draft a new will which had the same distribution provisions as the previous will. Susan was made aware of this and agreed to the drafting of the new will. Unfortunately, Marc passed away before he could execute the new will.

After Marc’s death, Susan advised Brent that a probate action, which would be the correct action to take after Marc’s death in order to distribute his assets, did not need to be filed.  Then, without notifying Brent, Susan filed the probate action herself and even requested to be appointed as the administrator of Marc’s estate.  And, as the appointed administrator of Marc’s estate, Susan did not identify Brent as an “interested party.” This was particularly damaging as there was no executed will and, as Marc’s same-sex domestic partner, Brent was not considered an heir under intestate succession.

Upon learning of Susan’s actions, Brent filed a lawsuit against Susan for her deceitful actions. Among other claims, Brent’s lawsuit included a claim for IIEI. The trial court dismissed the claim for IIEI because California had never before recognized the claim. Brent appealed from the trial court’s decision.  The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision and stated that California will recognize such a claim where the claimant can plead and establish all of the following elements:

  • the claimant had an expectation of receiving an inheritance
  • there was an intentional interference with that expectancy by someone other than the decedent (i.e. the interference was done by the opposing party)
  • the opposing party’s interference was independently wrongful or tortious
  • the wrongful or tortious activity was directed at the decedent
  • there was reasonable certainty that, but for the opposing party’s interference, the claimant would have received the inheritance
  • the claimant has no other adequate remedy at law
  • the claimant has sustained damages

The new tort of IIEI may greatly benefit individuals who feel that they have been unfairly deprived of an inheritance but who may not otherwise have the legal standing to bring a lawsuit on their claim, including, but not limited to, same-sex non-registered domestic partners, step-children and even unmarried heterosexual partners.