2.6 Tortious Interference with an Inheritance
Tortious interference with an inheritance has been described by the Restatement (Second) of the Law of Torts: “One who by fraud, duress or other tortious means intentionally prevents another from receiving from a third person an inheritance or gift …” As the Court of Appeals noted, many jurisdictions recognize the tort:
Courts in other jurisdictions have recognized the tort of intentional interference with an expected inheritance. DeWitt v. Duce, 408 So.2d 216 (1981); Frohwein v. Haesemeyer, 264 N.W.2d 792 (Iowa 1978); Cyr v. Cote, 396 A.2d 1013 (Me.1979); Lewis v. Corbin, 195 Mass. 520, 81 N.E. 248 (1907); Hammons v. Eisert, 745 S.W.2d 253 (Mo.App.1988); Doughty v. Morris, 117 N.M. 284, 871 P.2d 380 (N.M. Ct.App.1994); Bohannon v. Wachovia Bank & Trust Co. 210 N.C. 679, 188 S.E. 390 (1936); Firestone v. Galbreath, 67 Ohio St.3d 87, 616 N.E.2d 202 (1993); King v. Acker, 725 S.W.2d 750 (Tex.App.1987); Barone v. Barone, 170 W.Va. 407, 294 S.E.2d 260 (1982). A substantial number of courts permit plaintiffs to maintain such actions only when they have exhausted probate proceedings or can show that such proceedings would not have provided adequate relief. See Moore v. Graybeal, 843 F.2d 706, 710 (3rd Cir.1988); McGregor v. McGregor, 101 F.Supp. 848 (D.Colo.1951), aff’d, 201 F.2d 528 (10th Cir.1953); Benedict v. Smith, 34 Conn. Sup. 63, 376 A.2d 774 (Conn. Super. Ct.1977); DeWitt, supra; Robinson v. First State Bank of Monticello, 97 Ill.2d 174, 73 Ill.Dec. 428, 434, 454 N.E.2d 288, 294 (1983); Axe v. Wilson, 150 Kan. 794, 96 P.2d 880, 888 (1940); Allen v. Lovell’s Adm’x, 303 Ky. 238, 197 S.W.2d 424 (1946); Brignati v. Medenwald, 315 Mass. 636, 53 N.E.2d 673, 674 (1944).
Generally, the numerous other jurisdictions that have recognized the tort have done so based on the fundamental principle that “where there is a right, there is a remedy.” King v. Aker, 725 S.W.2d 750, 754 (Texas 1987) (Preventing the inheritance by transferring the property subject of the specific bequest before death via a forged power of attorney while the testator was unconscious.); Creek v. Laski, 227 N.W. 817, 818-20 (Mich. 1929) (Post death destruction of the Will by the personal representative to avoid the bequest to another.)
The Court of Appeals has not explicitly recognized the tort of interference with an inheritance. It did, however, go to great length to describe the tort in a case where the elements of the tort were not present – essentially giving Maryland courts a roadmap as to how to look at this tort. The Court of Appeals compared tortious interference with an inheritance to wrongful or malicious interference with economic relations which is recognized in Maryland:
We have adopted the tort of wrongful or malicious interference with economic relations. Alexander v. Evander, 336 Md. 635, 650, 650 A.2d 260 (1994); Macklin v. Logan, 334 Md. 287, 296-302, 639 A.2d 112 (1994). But we have not yet considered expanding the tort to apply to interference with gifts or bequests, nor, therefore, have we considered the compatibility of such an expansion with caveat proceedings. In the business context, where the tort does apply, we have required that the interference be “independently wrongful or unlawful, quite apart from its effect on the plaintiff’s business relationships.” Alexander, supra, 336 Md. at 657, 650 A.2d 260.
The distinction that the Court is making is that like the tort involving economic relations, tortious interference with an inheritance cannot be a substitute for the existing causes of actions involving inheritances, such as undue influence (the facts in Meadowcroft), caveats or the other varieties of will or trust contests.
A federal case illustrates the difference between a caveat or similar action and the intentional tort plead here. In re Marshall involved an allegation, not that Mr. Marshall’s son engineered a different bequest than his father actually wanted to leave his new (and substantially younger) wife, Anna Nicole Smith, but that the son manipulated events to derail that bequest. Apparently the father could not be swayed from leaving the bequest. The son therefore took various actions to make sure that his father’s instructions were not followed despite his father’s clear instructions. This case resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 311 (2006), which involved a collateral issue of whether the so-called “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction trumped federal bankruptcy jurisdiction. The Court determined that the probate exception is not triggered for a claim of tortious interference with an inheritance because it seeks an in personam judgment and does not involve an interpretation or enforcement of rights under a will or trust. In other words, it is a wholly separate action.