Intentional Interference with Inheritance

Inheritance

Recently, in the case of Barclay v. Castruccio, the Maryland Court of Appeals recognized, for the first time, a claim for intentional interference with an inheritance or gift.

This cause of action can arise when a claimant (“plaintiff”) is deprived of an inheritance or gift as a result of wrongdoing by another (“defendant”) against a third party that prevents the third party from providing the plaintiff a gift or inheritance.

Prior to the Barclay decision, while a plaintiff may have been the party most injured by a defendant’s wrongdoing (and the defendant may have intended that injury), a plaintiff could not recover from the defendant directly because the wrongdoing was committed against someone else. The third party, the immediate victim of the defendant’s wrongdoing, may have died by the time the wrongdoing is discovered.  Now, as a result of the Barclay case, the plaintiff may seek relief directly against the defendant wrongdoer.

Under this new cause of action for intentional interference with an inheritance or gift, a defendant can be liable for interference with an inheritance or gift if:

  1. the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift;
  2. the defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong, such as fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, the use of duress or exertion of undue influence;
  3. the defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy;
  4. the defendant’s conduct caused the expectancy to fail;
  5. the plaintiff suffered injury as a result; and
  6. the plaintiff has no right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.

For example, say a mother has a will that leaves her entire estate to her son.  Mother tells her lawyer that she wants to create a new will that leaves half of her estate to her daughter. Upon hearing of his mother’s intentions, son admits mother into a hospital and falsely tells her lawyer that she is not sufficiently competent to sign a new will.  Mother dies shortly thereafter, leaving behind only her first will (leaving everything to her son).  Under these facts, the daughter had a reasonable probability of receiving benefits by inheritance but for her brother’s intentional wrongdoing.  The son’s false statements to his mother’s lawyer were made for the purpose of interfering with his sister’s inheritance, and a portion of their mother’s assets would have passed to the daughter in the absence of the son’s interference. The daughter suffered injury by not inheriting under her mother’s will.  The daughter lacks recourse in probate because the mother’s will is valid and a probate court does not have the ability to decide a claim that the mother intended to create a different will but was prevented from doing so by the son.  Under the new law, the daughter may proceed against her brother for intentionally interfering with her inheritance.

While a claim for intentional interference with an inheritance or gift is most often applied to cases that involve wills, it also applies to interference with other non-probate transfers of property such as in revocable or irrevocable trusts, by deed, beneficiary designation or by gift.  By way of example, a father designates his daughter as sole beneficiary of a life insurance policy. Father’s caretaker fraudulently induces him to revoke the designation and substitute one that makes the caretaker the sole beneficiary. Father dies, and the benefits of his life-insurance policy are paid to the caretaker. The caretaker may be held liable for damages to the daughter under this new law.

The Barclay decision opens the door for those who may have previously been deprived of an inheritance or gift as a result of the wrongful acts of others.  More importantly, it will ensure that the intentions of a decedent will be enforced.

For questions about this article, or any other fiduciary litigation matter, please contact an attorney in our Estate, Trust, Probate & Guardianship Litigation practice group.