When a significant inheritance is at issue, or items in an estate have important sentimental value, the handling of an estate can quickly become a controversial matter. Family members may contest wills, dispute estate planning, and argue that they were promised certain items not reflected in the deceased’s documents.
One claim that can arise when a family member’s inheritance is reduced or eliminated is a claim for tortious interference with inheritance rights. In Texas, the validity of this claim is still up for debate but may be important where you have reason to believe that your inheritance rights were altered through the undue influence of another.
When Influence Becomes Too Much
Tortious interference claims arise when it can be alleged that one party exerted undue influence on the decedent or fraudulently led the decedent to change his or her will or estate plan, and the change causes a beneficiary of a prior will or an heir to lose some or all of their inheritance.
For example, perhaps a brother knows that he and his sister will each inherit one-half of their father’s estate under his current will. Brother, who is father’s primary caregiver, threatens to stop caring for father if he does not change his will to make brother the sole beneficiary. This is undue influence. Or he may simply lie and tell his dad that his sister no longer needs an inheritance because she just won the lottery. This is fraud.
In either circumstance, the brother has effectively “interfered” with his sister’s expectation of an inheritance by persuading their dad to change his estate plan. While such interference often occurs to benefit the one who is doing the interfering, that does not always have to be the case.
What Is Tortious Interference?
Tortious interference is a separate claim from claims commonly brought in a will contest or probate dispute. In some circumstances, long after probate has closed, a beneficiary of a will or estate may learn that her inheritance was reduced due to the undue influence or input of another. While it may be difficult to re-open the probate proceedings, the individual can instead bring a tort claim for interference.
Tortious interference with expected inheritance requires a plaintiff to prove three things:
- First, that he or she had a reasonable expectation of receiving a benefit or inheritance from the decedent.
- Second, that the defendant interfered with this expectation through some type of bad conduct, such as fraud or undue influence.
- Third, that this interference caused the plaintiff damages (i.e., loss of an inheritance).
The advantage of making a claim for tortious interference with inheritance rights in addition to fraud or undue influence is that tort claims enable the claimant to request punitive damages in addition to actual damages. Punitive damages, as the name suggests, are damages which are designed to punish the wrongdoer in addition to making the claimant whole. In the previous example, if sister were to prevail in her claim of tortious interference with inheritance rights she might be awarded damages against brother in the amount of the inheritance she lost plus an additional amount one to two times the value of the inheritance.
In Texas, the Texas Supreme Court has not yet definitively weighed in on whether tortious interference with inheritance rights is a recognizable tort claim under Texas law. Some lower courts have recognized the claim and allowed plaintiffs to pursue it, while others have not. As such, it remains a possible claim but with an uncertain future.
Texas Attorneys Filing a Tortious Interference Claim to Protect Your Interests
If you have reason to believe that your inheritance was reduced, or even eliminated because of the actions of another individual, it is important that you take action as quickly as possible. If probate proceedings are still ongoing, you may be able to contest the will or claim fraud against the estate. You may also consider filing an additional claim for tortious interference with your expected inheritance.
At Romano & Sumner, PLLC, our estate litigation attorneys can help you determine which approach works best for your circumstances, and a claim for tortious interference with inheritance rights is advisable. We proudly serve Sugar Land, Houston, and the surrounding areas. For more information, contact us online or at 281-242-0995.