In a case of first impression, one state’s high court has recognized the tort of interference with an inheritance, finding that it is a natural extension of the tort of intentional interference with economic expectancy. ABA Section of Litigation leaders note that the opinion marks a growing trend towards recognizing this claim, but warn that its scope is limited to wrongdoing that occurred before the testator’s death.
Baseless Legal Challenges to Will Sparks Recognition of New Tort
In Barclay v. Castruccio, Dr. Peter Castruccio and his wife Sadie had several businesses together. After the couple divided up their real estate, in 2010, Dr. Castruccio signed his last will and testament bequeathing $800,000 to a long-time employee, Darlene Barclay, and the remainder of his estate to Sadie upon the condition that she execute and file a will before he died. Otherwise, the remainder would go to Barclay. When Dr. Castruccio died in 2013, his wife had not fulfilled those requirements, and Barclay inherited the $6.7 million residuary estate. In response, Sadie filed seven unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to overturn the estate plan.
In 2017, Barclay sued Sadie for intentional interference with an expectancy, malicious use of process, and abuse of process, alleging that Sadie’s actions caused Barclay to incur attorney fees and litigation costs defending against multiple groundless lawsuits, reducing the value of the estate. The trial court dismissed all three claims. Barclay appealed only the intentional interference of expectancy claim. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, the state’s intermediate appellate court, affirmed the dismissal.
A Logical Extension of Existing Law
The Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state’s highest court, affirmed the judgment and adopted Section 19 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts, which provides that a defendant is liable for intentional interference with an inheritance or a gift if:
- The plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift;
- The defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong;
- The defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy;
- The defendant’s conduct caused the expectancy to fail; and
- The plaintiff suffered injury as a result; and
- That the plaintiff did not have the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.
However, it found that Barclay had failed to allege the interference necessary to state a claim.
In reaching its conclusion, the high court noted that the tort “ha[d] been recognized by courts in about half the states,” while “[a] handful of states ha[d] specifically rejected the tort” out of concern for interfering with probate court jurisdiction. It observed that the tort was “a species of interference with economic expectancy” and “[saw] no principled reason to deny liability for inheritance interference.”
The limitations of probate proceedings and remedies to deter bad actors also spurred the appellate court to adopt the tort. It explained that “[p]robate cannot add to the will something that is not there nor can the probate court bring into being a will which the testator was prevented from making and executing by fraud.” The court further noted that bad actors had no risk of loss in probate because the estate generally pays the tortfeasor’s attorney fees. Accordingly, the high court reasoned that “[t]he damages potentially recoverable by a successful plaintiff will likely shift the incentives motivating a bad actor away from bad conduct.”
As to concerns about overstepping into probate jurisdiction, the court of appeals cited Reporter’s Note to Section 19(2) of the Restatement, which stated, “the tort ‘is not available to a plaintiff who had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.”
Finally, the court of appeals held that “the interference must be with an ongoing or prospective relationship.” It noted that Barclay’s claim was based solely on Sadie’s groundless litigation filed after Dr. Castruccio’s death, and there was no allegation that Sadie had interfered with the relationship between Barclay and Dr. Castruccio before his will was finalized. As such, the court of appeals concluded there was no viable claim for intentional interference with inheritance.
Relationships and Timing Are Key to Stating a Claim
“Tortious interference with contract cases frequently turn on the terms of the contractual relationship at issue, while tortious interference with prospective contract or business expectancy cases hinge on the concreteness or likelihood of anticipated relationships coming to fruition,” explains Jonathan R. Ingrisano, Milwaukee, WI, member of the Section of Litigation’s Business Torts & Unfair Competition Committee. “The law wants to protect a testator’s right and intent to bestow a gift, and their relationship with the beneficiary is central to that intent. Analyzing this species of tortious interference claim through that ‘relationship’ lens makes a lot of sense,” he observes.
There can be “no wrongful interference after death which can then cause the testator to vary from his or her original intent,” adds Ingrisano. Instead, “wrongful post-death interference with a beneficiary’s receipt of his inheritance would almost always be independently actionable, as it was in this case with fee shifting and contempt sanctions available,” he concludes.
Another leader notes the limit of the case. “The tort is properly intended to not include post-death interference as other remedies exist for the ‘post-death interference’ relating to recovery of the estate’s attorney fees at issue in the case,” affirms Joseph D. Kropp, Wellesley, MA, subcommittee chair of the Section’s Real Estate, Condemnation, & Trust Litigation Committee.
Jonathan W. Lounsberry is a contributing editor for Litigation News.
Hashtags: #tortiousinterference #inheritance #probatelitigation #probate
- Kate Dickinson, “Tortious interference with inheritance rights remains an open question in Texas: A summary of Kinsel v. Lindsey, 526 S.W.3d 411 (Tex. 2017),” RPTE eReport (Nov. 2017).
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