How Tortious Interference with Expected Inheritance Law Emerged in Iowa

When a wrongdoer forces a loved one to change his/her estate plan you as a beneficiary normally may challenge the deceased’s amended Will or Trust in Iowa probate court. Sometimes, however, there is no probate remedy available for you to pursue or maybe the redress available is not adequate to repair the harm to your inheritance.

The recently trending tortious interference with expected inheritance (TIEI) lawsuit is now a practical alternative to probate litigation in our state. It involves bringing a civil wrongful-act claim against the person who stole your legacy. And unlike ordinary Will or Trust dispute lawsuits, you may seek punitive damages in a TIEI action when you can prove the wrongdoer hijacked your inheritance via fraud, deceit or stole from you with malicious intent.

Inheritance vs. Gifts

We should first mention that TIEI lawsuits can only redress a lost inheritance or gift. Iowa Probate code defines a lost “inheritance” as any bequest or intent to bequest by your loved one that would have passed on to you under a testamentary document.

Property or assets that you would have received through Iowa’s intestate succession rules also qualify as a lost inheritance in TIEI actions.

An interference with an expected “gift” refers to donations, presents or charity you should have received from the deceased’s estate after his/her death. Such gifts often include insurance policy benefits that a you would have taken had the wrongdoer not induced the decedent to change the policy’s beneficiary.

Tortious Interference with Expected Inheritance Law in the United States

In Marshall v. Marshall, a.k.a. the Anna Nicole Smith case, the United States Supreme Court in 2006 first recognized the TIEI cause of action. Here, Ms. Smith’s lawyers successfully proved her late husband’s stepson tortiously interfered with stock option conveyances that the deceased intended to gift to Ms. Smith as part of her inheritance.

The court accordingly held that had the defendant not willing forged and destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of stock options, Ms. Smith would have received her expected bequeath of over $400 million.

California Courts Define TIEI Elements

The California Court of Appeals courts soon after observed the Marshall precedent in 2012 when deciding Beckwith v. Dahl. In that case, Beckwith’s partner drafted a will dividing his estate between him and the partner’s sister. The partner, however, became seriously ill before he could execute the document. His sister later convinced her brother to draft a trust instead of a will, but the partner passed away before he could sign either document.

Under California’s intestacy rules, the sister was the sole legal heir to the partner’s estate. She thereafter informed Beckwith that he would receive no inheritance. Beckwith attempted to challenge Dahl’s bequest in probate court, but he held no standing to do so under the California Probate Code at the time. Beckwith then filed a TIEI claim, lost the case district court, and thereafter appealed to the California Courts of Appeal.

The Court ultimately held for the first time that individuals in California may sue for intentional interference with inheritance when the plaintiff held no remedy to resolve his/her claim in probate court. The Court further outlined six TIEI elements that would become backbone precedent for court rulings in other jurisdictions:

  • Expectation of inheritance.
  • Proximate causation.
  • Intent from the defendant.
  • Actual interference.
  • Actual economic harm.
  • Damages to a third party.

While the Beckwith Court only provided the judiciary with rough guidance on how to measure whether a tortious interference with expected inheritance took place, other jurisdictions and the American Law Institute updated their analyses on TIEI matters as these claims began to trend throughout the country.

American Law Institute Updates Tortious Interference Definitions

The American Law Institute in its Restatements of Torts publishing of section 774B wrote, a TIEI occurs “when a testator has been induced by tortious (wrongful) means to make his first will or not to make it… to change or revoke his will or not to change it or revoke it, [or] when a will is forged, altered or suppressed.”

Illinois and the District of Columbia Establish Further TIEI Precedent

The Supreme Court of Illinois heavily based its holdings on the Restatements and Beckwith court rulings when deciding Bjork v. O’Meara (2013), a case involving the statute of limitations for bringing a TIEI claim. Here, the Court ruled the state’s statute of limitations on recovery of property also governed interference with inheritance claims.

In other words, a TIEI action is a claim for damages and not a claim for estate property—thus effectively increasing the time that plaintiffs may initiate TIEI proceedings.

The District of Columbia in 2015 also had a voice in TIEI precedent after discovering a decedent’s grandson breached his fiduciary duty when he stole estate assets while serving as the deceased’s personal representative during probate.

The Court subsequently ruled beneficiaries who had their inheritances hijacked may concurrently file tortious interference claims, despite the issues in the case “intertwining” with probate proceedings.

Modern Tortious Interference with Inheritance Rules

Let’s fast forward five years to 2020, where half the states in the country now recognize TIEI claims. Modernly, most jurisdictions have adopted Maryland’s interpretation of Section 19 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts for determining whether an inheritance interference has taken place.

According to rulings found in Barclay v. Castruccio, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held a TIEI claim is the same as a “tort of intentional interference with economic expectancy.”

Tortious interference with inheritance ergo is simply an obvious broadening of an existing law where an individual becomes liable when:

  • The plaintiff held a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift.
  • The wrongdoer committed an intentional and independent tort.
  • The wrongdoer’s intent was to interfere with the plaintiff’s inheritance.
  • The wrongdoer’s act caused the plaintiffs’ bequeath or gift to fail.
  • The plaintiff suffered economic damages.
  • The plaintiff could not seek a remedy in a probate court.

And in Iowa…

The Iowa Supreme Court earlier this year heard Buboltz v. Birusingh an appeal from two plaintiffs who lost their TIEI lawsuit in district court after failing to prove the defendants knew the plaintiffs were expecting to inherit from the decedent.

The deceased in this case executed a Will in 2001 that conveyed her farm in equal shares to her cousin and a cash renter who had been farming the testatrix’s land for thirty years.

In 2005, the decedent executed a new Will that removed the two beneficiaries and replaced them with a daughter of a family friend. The testatrix also named the new beneficiary’s mother as the executor.

The mother had formed a confidential relationship with the testatrix after 2001. The former beneficiaries brought TIEI action after probate ended, claiming both the mother and daughter unduly influenced the deceased into bequeathing her farm to them in exchange for their help.

The defendants thereafter sought summary judgment on the interference with inheritance claim—arguing the plaintiffs held no direct proof showing the defendants knew about the deceased’s 2001 Will. The Court agreed that no evidence existed to find the mother and daughter had knowledge of the defendants’ expected inheritance and therefore dismissed the case.

Court Upholds TIEI Precedent in Iowa

On appeal, Justice Matthew McDermott held the elements in an interference with an inheritance lawsuit in Iowa are the same elements found in Barclay v. Castruccio. A defendant must accordingly know about the plaintiff’s bequest, since without that knowledge, no intent to interfere would exist.

TIEI claims ergo specifically remedy a person’s expectancy. Thus, granting summary judgment to a defendant who shows that no material facts exist to support any one of the elements found in Barclay is therefore appropriate and allowed.

Finally, McDermott reasoned that if the Court allowed the plaintiffs in this case to prevail without proving expectancy, tortious interference with inheritance claims would “ensnare” citizens who legitimately become beneficiaries in Wills or Trusts after providing good faith care to the elderly—conduct that “society generally seeks to promote.”

As you can see, the circumstances under which you may bring a TIEI lawsuit in Iowa can be tricky. However, this fairly new tort is still maturing, and the courts have offered us a lot of guidance since Marshall v. Marshall for resolving tortious interference with expected inheritance claims when probate disputes fail.

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