An inheritance is an asset that one person receives from another upon the other person’s death. The word can also refer to the act of inheriting something. Typically, the inheritance of property is effected through the will of the decedent, the person who passed away. A “bequest” is a provision in a will that leaves an inheritance to a named person or entity who is the “beneficiary.” Unfortunately, receiving a gift or inheritance can be complicated by wrongful interference.
It is also possible to inherit property through the laws of intestacy, that is, the laws of a state that direct what happens to a person’s assets after they pass away if they do not have a will, but the laws of intestacy are not involved in wrongful interference.
Wrongful or tortious interference with a gift or an inheritance refers to a situation in which a third party intentionally causes a person who intends to make a bequest or a gift to abandon that intention. This might be accomplished in a variety of ways. An example of this in terms of gifts and bequests would be if a person expected to receive a gift or inheritance, and another party dissuaded the donor from making the gift or providing for the inheritance. The law in almost 30 states in the U.S. recognizes claims for wrongful interference with a gift or an inheritance.
What Are Some Examples of Wrongful Interference with a Gift or Inheritance?
Some common examples of interference include:
- Interfering so that a will or gift is not made at all;
- Inducing a person to change a will or a bequest in a will or a gift;
- Concealing or destroying a will or the documentation of an intention to make a gift;
- Taking away the property of the person who wants to make a gift or bequest so they no longer have the assets left to make the gift or bequest;
- Breaking a promise that a person made to another who wants to make a gift or a bequest to convey the property left in trust with the person to the person who should receive it.
California is among the states that recognize the claim of interference with an expected inheritance. In the case in which a California court recognized the claim as legally valid in that state, a person who had been in a long-term, committed relationship with their partner had drafted a will leaving his estate in equal shares to his sister and his partner. Before he could sign the will, he had to undergo surgery.
After having recovered and when he was ready to sign his will, his sister suggested that an estate plan based on a trust would be better. The person then did not sign the will and passed away before he could sign the will or make alternative arrangements. The partner sued for wrongful interference with an expected inheritance, and his lawsuit was allowed to go forward by a California court.
What is Required to Prove Wrongful Interference?
In order to sue for wrongful interference, a person who is the one deprived of the gift or bequest would need to prove that the party who wrongfully interfered acted intentionally. This would mean they intended their acts and the resulting interference with the gift or bequest.
This means that the interfering party would have known that there was a will containing the bequest or some form of writing in which the person who intended to make the gift promised to do so or expressed their intent to do so. But the interfering person interfered anyway to foil the intended act.
The specific elements that must be shown by the evidence to prove wrongful interference vary from state to state, but in general, a plaintiff will be required to show:
- The person had a reasonably definite expectation of receiving the gift or bequest. This means that but for the interference, the person would undoubtedly have received the gift or bequest. This requires more than just a possibility of receiving a gift or inheritance, but does not require an absolute certainty either. Generally, it is not enough to assume that because the person is a close family member, they therefore had a reasonably definite expectation. Solid proof is generally required to show that a gift or inheritance was going to be made to the intended recipient;
- Good evidence shows that the person had the intention to make a gift or bequest, and the intended recipient and the person who interfered knew about its existence;
- The person who interfered intended to induce the person who was going to make the gift or bequest to change their intentions;
- The donor’s intention was altered, and the person who was deprived of the gift or inheritance suffered specific economic damage as a result of the alteration.
Essentially, the person harmed would need to prove that the actions of the person who interfered were wrongful. The person’s actions would be considered wrongful if:
- The person acted with ill will or the intent to cause the recipient not to receive the gift or bequest; and
- The person employed fraud, undue influence, or misrepresentation to interfere with the gift or inheritance.
What Are the Remedies for Wrongful Interference?
Before filing a lawsuit alleging wrongful interference, the person who was supposed to receive a bequest might first consider contesting the will, proving the terms of a missing or lost will under the probate code, or submitting a new will under the probate code if one exists. But often, a proceeding in probate does not offer a remedy for the victim of wrongful interference, which is why they have to proceed with a lawsuit in civil court for wrongful interference.
There are basically two different types of monetary remedies available for wrongful interference claims. The most common types of damages that are likely to be awarded include:
- Compensatory Damages: This type of remedy generally consists of money damages in an amount intended to compensate the wronged party for economic injury suffered as a result of the breach;
- Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are intended to punish a person who has wronged another. Punitive damages are generally reserved for cases in which the other party behaved in an especially reprehensible way; and
When Will Damage Not Result from Wrongful Interference?
It is possible that even in the absence of any interference, the donor did not have enough property to make the gift or bequest. In such cases, no damage would result to the intended recipient, and a lawsuit filed against the person who interfered would not be successful.
Generally, it might be challenging to win a claim against a wrongdoer because it is often difficult to prove that it was, in fact, their actions that caused the donor to change their mind. This is partially because there really is no need for an explanation from someone as to why they are making a gift or a bequest or why they decide differently. Additionally, proving fraud, duress, or misrepresentation is not easy and it can require a lot of time and money to gather all of the evidence in order to support such claims.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Wrongful Interference Claims?
If you have been the victim of wrongful interference, it would be in your best interest to consult with a well-qualified and knowledgeable will attorney in order to protect your rights.
An experienced attorney will be able to help determine if you have a valid legal claim, and the remedies to which you are entitled as well as the likelihood of succeeding with your claim. Also, the attorney will be able to represent you in court, if necessary.