Inheritance describes the process and rights a person has to various types of property upon someone else’s death, such as a spouse or close relative. Typically, the inheritance of property is indicated in the decedent’s (person who passed away) will. However, it is possible to inherit property without the existence of a will. Unfortunately, receiving a gift or inheritance can be complicated by wrongful or tortious interference.
Wrongful or tortious interference refers to a situation in which a third party intentionally causes a contracting party to commit a breach of contract. This might be accomplished through inducement, or by disrupting a party’s ability to perform their contractual obligations. An example of this in terms of gift and inheritance would be if you are expecting a gift or inheritance, and another party dissuades the donor from giving the gift or inheritance.
This cause of action may go by many other names, including:
- Intentional or unlawful interference with contractual relations;
- Interference with a contractual relationship;
- Interference with a contract; or
- Inducement or procurement of a breach of contract.
Generally, the third party who is interfering with the contract ( the “tortfeasor”), is an individual that was not a party to the contract and is interfering for their own financial gain. The intended recipient of the gift or inheritance may have a claim against the tortfeasor for tortious interference.
Some common examples of interference include:
- Interfering with the making of a will or gift;
- Inducing the donor to alter a will or gift;
- Concealing or destroying a will or documentation of a gift;
- Taking away the donor’s property, so that there will not be enough left for the gift or inheritance; or
- Breaking a promise made to the donor to convey property in trust to the intended recipient.
In order to sue for wrongful interference, the plaintiff, or the non breaching party, will need to prove that the tortfeasor acted intentionally, both with regards to their own actions and the resulting contractual breach. This means, the tortfeasor must have known about the contractual relationship, and committed the breach anyway.
The specific elements for proving wrongful interference vary from state to state, but in general, a plaintiff will be required to show:
- A reasonably definite expectation to receive the gift. This means that but for the interference, the plaintiff would have undoubtedly received the gift or inheritance. This requires more than just a possibility of receiving a gift or inheritance, but does not require an absolute certainty. Typically it is not enough to just assume that because a plaintiff is a close family member, a reasonably definite expectation exists. Solid proof is generally required to show that a gift or inheritance will be made to the intended recipient;
- A valid contract or contractual relationship existed, of which the tortfeasor had knowledge;
- The tortfeasor intended to induce one of the contracting parties to commit a breach, and was not otherwise privileged or authorized to induce breach; and
- The contract was in fact breached, and the plaintiff suffered specific economic damage as a result of the breach.
Essentially, the plaintiff will need to prove that the tortfeasor’s actions were wrongful. A tortfeasor’s actions are considered wrongful if:
- They acted with ill will or intent to cause the recipient not to receive the gift or inheritance; and
- They actually utilized fraud, undue influence, or misrepresentation to interfere with the gift or inheritance.
Before filing a lawsuit, the intended recipient 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.
The remedies that may be available to plaintiffs in a wrongful interference case are similar to the damages available in a breach of contract claim. However, there are several different types of monetary remedies available in wrongful interference claims. The most common types of damages available include:
- Compensatory Damages: This type of remedy is intended to compensate the non-breaching party for losses suffered as a result of the breach;
- Restitution: These damages are intended to restore the injured party to their original position and do not include lost profits or earnings;
- Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are intended to punish the offending party, or the tortfeasor. Punitive damages are generally reserved for cases in which the other party behaved in a morally reprehensible way; and
- Equitable Remedies: Equitable remedies may consist of an injunctive order which would prevent the tortfeasor from benefiting from their interference.
It is possible that the donor, in the absence of any interference, did not have enough property to make the gift or inheritance. In such cases, no damage would result to the intended recipient, and no claim may be filed against the tortfeasor.
Generally, it is very difficult to win a claim against a tortfeasor because it is often difficult to prove that it was in fact the tortfeasor’s 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 giving a gift or inheritance.
Thus, the same logic applies when they retract from giving the gift or inheritance. Additionally, proving fraud, duress, or misrepresentation is not easy and often requires a lot of time and money to gather all of the facts in order to support such claims.
If you have experienced wrongful interference, it would be in your best interest to consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable estate attorney in order to protect your rights.
Additionally, an experienced estate attorney will be able to help determine if you have a valid legal claim, and what remedies you are entitled to. Also, the attorney will be able to represent you in court, if necessary.