WRONGFUL INTERFERENCE WITH WILL
It is known by many different names, depending on the state and the era. Most recently it made its appearance in news headlines with the name – intentional interference with expected inheritance, sometimes even shortened it IIEI. The United States Supreme Court referred to it as “a widely recognized” cause of action and as the “tort of interference with a gift or inheritance” in the Anna Nicole Smith case. Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 296 (2006). The matter has surfaced in the news over at least the last century, most famously (perhaps infamously) in the Father Divine case in New York, in 1949. Latham v. Father Divine, 299 N.Y. 22 (1949).
The American Law Institute published the The Restatement of Torts (Second) of Torts in 1979. That was the first time that the tort, known by many names, was formally recognized as such. Prior to this, the principal and concept was recognized but only in the most egregious of circumstances. There are several seminal cases that speak to the larger concept, one of which was the New York case dealing with Father Divine case noted above.
The vast majority of Trial Court cases barely survived dismissal for failure to state a claim, as the right to such a cause of action was in question, despite the seminal cases. The law is a living thing that evolves and even comes around waves. As one of the twentieth century cases that broke the mold of nineteenth century reasoning noted that under Roman Law, interference with inheritance was a criminal act.
CURRENT NEW YORK LAW
New York Law does not recognize this cause of action per se. The New York Appellate Division of the Supreme Court summed it up perfectly when they held that no such cause of action exists in the state for tortious interference with an inheritance. It will, however, create a constructive trust for the intended heir under certain equitable circumstances. Schneider v. David, 602 N.Y. 2D 130 (1993). Is this the same thing? For example, Iowa permits such a cause of action, which is litigated in its Trial Courts, not its Probate Court, allowed for attorney’s fees and punitive damages for intentional and malicious conduct. Huffey v. Lea 491 N.W. 2D 518 (Iowa 1992).
The difference between whether a case is litigated in front of a probate judge versus a trial court matters, insofar as you are entitled to a jury in a trial court. In addition, attorney’s fees and punitive damages also matter, but, probate court judges could award attorneys fees if the case warrants it. But the measure of economic damages, which is indeed the merits of a case, is still the same. To further elaborate on New York law, the 1988 case of Dawson v. Vasques quoted the 1919 case of Beatty v. Guggenheim Exploration Co. which stated that equity requires that a constructive trust be created, but it is nothing more than the means by which fairness acts and that it will not “restrict itself” to any specific form of harm for which it will provide justice. Instead, equity will fix whatever chicanery that people can implement.
For more information all all issues related to inheritances, wills, and trusts, be sure to reach out to a NY estate planning attorney today.