A few years ago, California recognized a new tort that allows plaintiffs to sue for intentionally interfering with an expected inheritance. In other words, you can sue if you were going to receive a gift under a Trust or Will, and then someone wrongly influenced an elder to change the estate plan to remove you (or prevented them from changing it to add you). Sounds simple enough. You were going to receive a large inheritance, now you’re not, and that means it’s time to sue.
But it’s not that easy. There is one big catch to bringing a lawsuit for intentional interference with that is called ‘probate remedy.’ The probate remedy refers to your rights as a family member, prior named beneficiary, or heir-at-law to bring a Trust or will lawsuit in court. If you have the right to challenge a Trust or will in probate court, then you automatically lose the right to bring an intentional inheritance lawsuit.
For example, let’s say your mother created a Trust that named all of her three kids as equal beneficiaries. You were set to inherit one-third of her estate. But two months before her death, your brother convinced mom to change her Trust to leave everything to him and nothing to you and your sister. As an heir-at-law of your mother, and as a prior named beneficiary under the Trust, you have the right to bring a Trust contest lawsuit in probate court. Your Trust contest lawsuit would ask the court to invalidate the Trust amendment that disinherited you, and confirm the Trust as it was originally with each child receiving one-third.
However, since you have a right to sue in probate court to overturn the Trust amendment, you do NOT have a right to sue your brother for intentional interference with an inheritance. In other words, you have an adequate probate remedy because you have the right to challenge the Trust amendment in court. Therefore, that’s the right you must pursue.
Here’s another example where someone would have the right to sue for expected inheritance. Let’s say you are a long-time friend of the decedent. You spent years as close friends, sharing vacations, seeing each other often, and spending time together nearly every week. Your friend was adamant that half her estate would go to you when she died, and the other half would go to her daughter. The daughter, however, found out about this plan and wanted to stop her mother from giving away half the estate. When your friend’s attorney sent over a draft of the estate plan that left you half of everything, her daughter intercepted the mail and kept the draft estate plan hidden. Your friend called her attorney to request the draft again. And again her daughter intercepted the mail and destroyed the draft estate plan. Your friend died before she could sign the estate plan.
In this case, you may be able to bring an intentional interference with inheritance lawsuit against your friend’s daughter. Since you were never named as a beneficiary under your friend’s estate plan, and you are not a family member or heir-at-law of hers, you have no right to bring a lawsuit in probate court. Instead, you could sue the friend’s daughter in civil court and seek damages equal to half of your friend’s estate.
The bottom line: if you have rights to overturn a bad Trust or Will in probate court, then you need to follow that path. If, however, you have no right to sue in probate court, then you may want to consider a different way to sue using intentional interference with an expected inheritance.
For help navigating your legal options, contact us today.