Last month, California’s Fourth Appellate District recognized a claim for intentional interference with an expected inheritance (IIEI) in Beckwith v. Dahl. Prior to Beckwith, anyone who expected to inherit according to a California will or trust could only sue to overturn an instrument in probate court. In order to do so, however, a party must have standing. Anyone related to a decedent by blood would have little difficulty establishing standing in probate court. In contrast, an unmarried partner or friend who was cut out of a will at the last minute would likely be unable to establish standing.
In Beckwith, the decedent, Marc MacGinnis, was in a long-term committed relationship with Brent Beckwith. The couple lived together and at times engaged in joint business dealings. MacGinnis reportedly prepared a will on his computer that left half of his estate to Beckwith and half to his only surviving relative, Susan Dahl. Dahl was MacGinnis’ estranged sister. Unfortunately, MacGinnis failed to print or sign his purported will before his health began to decline.
In May 2009, MacGinnis underwent surgery on his lungs. Prior to surgery, he asked Beckwith to print the will he prepared on his computer and bring it to the hospital for his signature. After Beckwith was unable to locate the will, MacGinnis asked him to prepare a new one for him to sign. Prior to presenting the will to MacGinnis for signature, Beckwith emailed a copy to Dahl. Dahl responded by stating she believed creating a living trust would be more beneficial than a will. Dahl then agreed to have a friend prepare a trust document for MacGinnis to sign. Because Beckwith was waiting on trust documents from Dahl, he never presented the written will to MacGinnis who was immediately placed on a ventilator following his surgery. Less than one week later, MacGinnis died intestate after Dahl had him removed from the ventilator in accordance with physician recommendations.
Two weeks after MacGinnis died, Dahl opened probate proceedings in Los Angeles Superior Court and failed to identify Beckwith as an interested party. In January 2010, Dahl petitioned the court for final distribution of MacGinnis’ estate. When Beckwith attempted to oppose Dahl’s petition, the probate judge informed him that he had no standing in the case.
On July 20, 2010, Beckwith brought a civil action against Dahl for IIEI, negligence, and deceit by false promise. The trial court stated recognition of the IIEI tort in the State of California was a matter for an appellate court and dismissed Beckwith’s entire complaint without leave to amend. Beckwith timely filed an appeal with California’s Fourth Appellate District.
The appellate court examined whether California should recognize a tort remedy for IIEI. Previous California cases that considered the tort never expressly recognized or declined to recognize IIEI. Although the tort was not previously recognized in California, it was recognized in twenty-five of the forty-two states that have considered the cause of action. After discussing the policy considerations associated with recognizing IIEI, the Fourth Appellate District stated the tort applies in California cases where a party cannot bring a claim in probate court.
Although the appellate court recognized the IIEI tort, it ruled that Beckwith failed to sufficiently allege the requirements for the tort in his complaint. According to the court, Beckwith could not bring a claim for IIEI because Dahl’s actions were directed at Beckwith instead of the decedent. The court remanded the case after holding Beckwith had sufficiently pleaded a case for fraud against Dahl based on her alleged lies regarding the creation of a trust document.