California Law Does Not Recognize A Claim For Tortious Interference With Inheritance If Probate Law Already Provides A Remedy
Over the past 20 years, approximately half of the states have recognized a cause of action for tortious interference with an expected inheritance. California has not. In Munn v. Briggs, the California Court of Appeal declined to recognize the claim where California probate law provided a remedy to the party seeking to assert the claim.
Munn arose from facts typical of this type of dispute. The decedent’s estate plan originally provided for her estate to be divided equally between her son and her daughter. The decedent lived in an assisted living facility and, according to her son, was dependent upon her daughter to manager her personal affairs. At some point, the decedent amended her estate plan to make a specific bequest of $2 million to the daughter’s children. The effect of this amendment was to reduce by $2 million the amount to be shared by the decedent’s son and daughter.
After the decedent’s death (at which point the estate plan could not be amended), the son filed suit alleging that his sister had been emotionally abusive to the decedent and made various threats to the decedent in order to persuade her to amend the estate plan to the detriment of the son. Since the estate plan, like most estate plans, contained a “no contest” clause disinheriting anyone who challenged the plan, the son instead filed suit against his sister claiming that she had wrongfully interfered with his inheritance. The trial court dismissed the suit on the grounds that California law did not recognize such a claim.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. The Munn court reviewed the development of the law regarding claims for tortious interference with inheritance and the decisions of courts in other states that permit the claim. The court further noted that California probate law changed in 2010 to substantially limit the enforceability of no contest clauses and would now permit a claimant in Mr. Munn’s position to challenge the amendment to his mother’s estate plan without being disinherited.
Since the claimant had a remedy in probate law, the court concluded that it was not necessary to recognize a claim for tortious interference with inheritance. However, the Munn court made clear that its decision was premised on the specific facts of the case and did not preclude recognition of a tortious interference with inheritance claim in the future under appropriate circumstances.