Tortious interference is when a third party to a contract intentionally acts to harm the financial potential of the relationship. While it is usually associated with business contracts, wills and trusts can be subject to tortious interference in Florida.
An inheritance can be a significant financial event in your life. If someone improperly interfered to prevent you from receiving what you should have, you may have a claim for tortious interference. However, proving the claim can be difficult.
Typically, when you contest or dispute a will or trust in Florida, you bring an action in probate court as part of the administration of the decedent’s estate. Once the probate court closes the cases and ends the distribution of the decedent’s affairs, future challenges are barred.
But tortious interference claims can be brought separately from the probate administration of the estate. If you only learn about being wronged and losing some of your inheritance after your loved one’s will has been closed, you can commence a tortious interference case.
What is an example of tortious interference with a contract expectancy of inheritance?
If someone unduly pressures your loved one to update their will, trust, or other estate plans to lower your share or exclude you entirely from the inheritance, they may have tortiously interfered with your expectancy of inheritance.
Imagine the following scenario:
You have three full-siblings and one half-sibling from your father’s earlier marriage. Near the end of your father’s life, he updates his will to give your half-sibling half his estate, leaving you and your three full siblings to split the rest.
After probate closes your father’s estate, you find out your half-sibling married your father’s caregiver. It seems your half-sibling threatened him with removing his care unless he updated the will to give him half of the entire estate.
You may have a claim for tortious interference with expectancy of inheritance in Florida.
What are the steps in proving tortious interference in a will or trust dispute?
Florida law requires you to show four separate elements to prove that you were the victim of tortious interference in your inheritance:
- You had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or benefit from the decedent.
- A third party intentionally interfered with your expected inheritance through bad faith conduct like undue pressure or fraud.
- The interference caused you to lose some or all of your expected inheritance.
- The interference caused you to suffer financial loss (known as “damages”).
Proving the second element is generally the most challenging part of a tortious interference lawsuit. Just because a testator made a late change to their will or trust does not mean they were unduly influenced or defrauded.
Undue influence claims in Florida often scrutinize whether the accused had a deep, long-term connection with the deceased. In the example we discussed above, the half-sibling is your father’s child, which means that their relationship is likely not questionable absent other circumstances.
Still, even a child can exert undue pressure on an elderly or sick parent. If you can prove they threatened to remove needed care in exchange for the update to the will, you may win your case. Likely, this will require the use of circumstantial evidence but also may be demonstrated through text messages or emails.
Lastly, if you file a tortious interference claim, you will likely use litigation discovery to review your father’s earlier wills and estate planning documents. If these show the original plan was to divide the estate amongst your father’s five children evenly, you will have a claim for damages. Your loss would be the difference between a one-fifth and a one-eighth share of the estate.
Can you get punitive damages for tortious interference?
Because tortious interference claims involving inheritance rights are treated differently than will contests or disputes, you may have the ability to receive punitive damages. Punitive damages can be added to the damages you actually incurred as a way to punish the wrongdoer.
Florida allows collection of punitive damages in tortious interference claims if the accused’s wrongdoing is so egregious that it supports punishment. Merely prevailing on a tortious interference in an inheritance claim is not enough to trigger punitive damages.
However, if you are awarded punitive damages, they are typically a multiplier of your actual damage award. For example, the court may take the amount of your damages and simply double to punish your half-sibling.
Though the availability of punitive damages is a benefit of tortious interference claims, courts may be reluctant to unwind a settled estate. Therefore, you should not pursue a tortious interference claim without first consulting with an experienced probate litigation attorney. There may be a better course of action you can take to recover your inheritance.
Have questions? We’re happy to discuss.
Call (786) 761-8333 or email [email protected]
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About RMO Lawyers, LLP
About RMO LLP serves clients in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Orange County, San Diego, Kansas City, Miami, and communities throughout California, Florida, Missouri, and Kansas. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn, has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates. For a free consultation, call (786) 761-8333 or visit: https://rmolawyers.com