Tortious Interference with Inheritance Rights is a type of lawsuit that is only allowed in certain states. This cause of action allows a plaintiff to sue a defendant who intentionally prevented them from receiving an inheritance or gift through fraud or coercion or undue influence.
To succeed in a tortious interference with inheritance rights claim, the wronged party must prove all of the following elements:
- The plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift
- The defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong
- The defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy
- The defendant’s conduct caused the expectancy to fail
- The plaintiff suffered injury as a result.
However, in the 2018 case of Archer v. Anderson, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Texas law does not recognize a cause of action for tortious interference with inheritance rights. The court reached this conclusion because it believed the existing probate law and equitable claim for unjust enrichment already provided adequate remedies for this type of wrong. It also argued that recognizing this cause of action would conflict with state probate law.
What Are Your Options When You Suspect an Elder Person Is Being Coerced to Change Their Will or Trust?
If you suspect an elderly person is being coerced to change their will or trust, there are steps you can take to protect the victim. First and foremost, you should contact your local Adult Protective Services agency if you believe an elder is being abused or financially exploited.
Additionally, if the victim worked with an estate planning attorney to create their will or trust, you should inform that attorney of your suspicions. This will put the lawyer on alert for suspicious behavior, particularly if the elder is being pressured to modify their estate planning documents.
Can You Dispute the Will or Beneficiary Designation Before Death?
No, you cannot dispute a will or beneficiary designation before an individual passes away. This is primarily because a will does not go into effect until after the testator’s death, and the testator can change it anytime while they are still alive. Similarly, a beneficiary designation can be changed or the account or property at issue sold or given away.
However, if you suspect that a loved one is being coerced to change their will or other estate planning documents, you should also contact a probate litigation attorney as soon as possible to discuss this situation. A probate litigation lawyer can help you preserve evidence and documentation of the undue influence or coercion that will allow you to contest a changed will or trust or beneficiary designation or power of attorney after death if necessary. Further, a guardianship litigation lawyer can evaluate whether a guardianship proceeding should be filed if the person being subject to undue influence or coercion is incapacitated and needs a guardian to protect their estate or person.
Can You Get Punitive Damages for Tortious Interference?
Punitive damages are a type of compensation that plaintiffs can receive in a lawsuit. This compensation is awarded on top of the plaintiff’s actual damages and is meant to punish the defendant for particularly harmful or corrupt behavior. In states that recognize a cause of action for tortious interference with inheritance rights, punitive damages may be available under state law in extreme cases.
Even though Texas does not recognize this tort, conduct that could sustain a claim for tortious interference with inheritance rights in other states often can be pursued through other causes of action that the state does allow. For instance, the plaintiffs in Archer v. Anderson were able to sue the defendant for breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and legal malpractice. The Texas Supreme Court also discussed the option to bring a claim for unjust enrichment.
Texas law allows punitive damages to be awarded when the defendant engaged in fraud, malice, or gross negligence or when a fiduciary commits an intentional or willful and unconscionable breach. So, in some situations, punitive damages could be available in this type of lawsuit.
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About RMO, LLP
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 (424) 320-9444 or visit: https://rmolawyers.com.