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Dawn of A New Tort: Intentional Interference With Expected Inheritance

Posted on: May 6, 2012

On May 3, 2012, in the case of Brent Beckwith v. Susan Dahl, (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 1039, the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case and recognized for the first time that Intentional Interference of Expected Inheritance (IIEI) is a tort now recognized in California.

The Court reasoned that under general principles the law prohibits an injury and will afford a remedy, and similarly, it is a maxim of California jurisprudence that, “for every wrong there is a remedy.” (Civ.Code, 3523.) In addition, in California, “every person is bound, without contract, to abstain from injuring the person or property of another, or infringing upon any of his or her rights.” (Civ.Code, 1708.) The Court reasoned that recognizing the tort of IIEI is consistent with and advances these basic principles.

In this case, Beckewith, the plaintiff, who was an ex-lover of Rock Hudson (not relevant to the issues, but the Court included this fact in its opinion for no apparent reason), lived with his partner Marc MacGinnis, in a long term committed relationship for almost 10 years. MacGinnis had no children and his parents were deceased. He was estranged from his only living relative, his sister, Susan Dahl.

MacGinnis was very sick and preparing to go to the hospital for lung surgery. He asked Beckwith to make a will so that Beckwith could inherit MacGinnis’ estate, worth over $1M. Beckwith downloaded a standard will onto MacGinnis’ computer, but before MacGinnis signed it, Beckwith called Dahl to let her know what her brother was intending to do, and that he was scheduled to go into surgery. Dahl persuaded Beckwith to hold off on the will and not give it to MacGinnis, and stated that a trust would be better so as to avoid probate. Dahl told Beckwith that she would have an attorney friend draft the trust.

In reliance on Dahl’s assurances, Beckwith did not present the will to MacGinnis before he went to the hospital. After the surgery, MacGinnis’ did not regain consciousness. He was put on a ventilator, and died six days later. Dahl did not obtain a trust declaration. MacGinnis died intestate – without a will.

After MacGinnis’ funeral, Beckwith suggested to Dahl that they find the will that MacGinnis prepared, and Dahl replied that “we don’t need a will”. Two weeks later, Dahl opened a probate case for her brother’s estate, and did not list Beckwith as an interested party and did not give him any copies of any papers filed. She had herself appointed as the administrator. Dahl then filed a petition with the Probate Court to close the estate and distribute all her brother’s estate to herself, as the sole survivng heir. She continued to stonewall and lie to Beckwith.

Beckwith, filed suit against Dahl for IIEI and Promissory Fraud. The trial court dimissed the case on grounds that the tort of IIEI was not recognized in California.

In reversing the trial court’s dismissal, the Appelate Court announced the requisite elements to state a cause of action for IIEI: 1.) Expectancy of Inheritance; 2.) Causation – a reasonable certainty that the bequest or gift would have been in effect at the time of death of the testator if it were not for the interference; 3.) Intent – defendant had knowledge of plaintiff’s expectancy and took deliberate action to interfere with it; 4.) The actions of interference were conducted by independently wrongful (tortous) means; 5.) The wrongful action, the underlying tort, was directed at someone other than the plaintiff, and; 6.) Resulting damages.

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