Claims For Tortious Interference With Inheritance

Since 1978 Iowa's recognized a claim known as "tortious interference with inheritance." This claim arises in situations when someone believes that he or she was unlawfully cut out of an inheritance that he or she had expected. If that person can prove that someone illegally interfered with the expected inheritance, compensatory and punitive damages are recoverable.

In general, a person wishing to proceed under an interference with inheritance theory must first challenge the will or trust through traditional probate proceedings, unless for some reason no such proceedings are unavailable or inadequate. Some courts have also suggested that an interference with inheritance claim isn't available at all if methods exist to contest the will or trust in probate court. In such situations, some courts hold that probate court is the person's only remedy, regardless of whether the person is successful in probate court.

Most states that recognize tortious or intentional interference with inheritance claims identify the following required elements for such claims: (1) the plaintiff had an expectancy with which the defendant interfered; (2) the interference was tortious; (3) reasonable certainty exists that, but for the defendant’s tortious interference, the expectancy would have been fulfilled; and (4) injury or damages. 

The first element, expectancy, can be difficult to prove in the absence of an earlier will or trust that had benefited the plaintiff and was later changed. A draft will or trust or other written evidence of testamentary intent may also suffice to establish the necessary expectancy. 

The second element, tortious interference, is concerned with the defendant's state of mind. It is not enough for the plaintiff to show that the defendant intended to interfere with an inheritance. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that the defendant's interference was wrongful in some manner. Common types of wrongful interference with an inheritance include duress, fraud, defamation, tortious abuse of a fiduciary duty, forgery, suppression, or alteration.

Compensatory damages for interference with an inheritance often include the value of the property the plaintiff would've received had it not been for the defendant's tortious interference. Emotional distress damages are also recoverable. Punitive damages may also be awarded in rare cases. If the plaintiff had previously challenged the will or trust in probate court, and then also proves that the defendant tortiously interfered with the will or trust, the plaintiff's attorney fees in probate court may be recoverable in the later tortious interference action. 

Like any other tortious interference case, proving tortious interference with an inheritance expectancy is extremely difficult. Unless an earlier will or trust document is available to prove that at one point the plaintiff had an expectation of gaining something from the decedent, it may be an uphill battle for the plaintiff to prove that he or she had any recognizable expectation that the defendant could even interfere with. And even if a legitimate expectation can be established, the plaintiff then has to prove not only that the defendant interfered with the will or trust, but that such interference was wrongful in some manner. Not all interference with a will or trust reaching the level of unlawfulness required to establish a claim for tortious interference with an inheritance expectancy. In short, anyone considering a tortious interference with inheritance claim needs to carefully think about how those elements will be proved.

Harley Erbe