Tortious Interference With an Expected Inheritance

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What can you do if you had expected to receive an inheritance only to find out that someone has deprived you of it? A Florida civil claim for tortious interference with an expected inheritance may be an option to help you receive the value of the assets or items you are entitled to and ensure that your loved one’s true wishes are honored.

What Is Tortious Interference with an Expected Inheritance?

Tortious interference with an expected inheritance is a civil lawsuit that you can file if you were an intended beneficiary who was deprived of some or all of their inheritance because of a third party’s actions. It can be filed by any beneficiary denied an inheritance, whether you are a natural heir of the person who died, or a friend or business associate who had been promised something under the person’s Will.

The lawsuit is designed to protect the desires of the testator, that is, the person who wrote or signed the Will. It is not a matter of your rights as a beneficiary, so much as it is beneficiaries acting to protect the right of the testator to distribute their property as they choose after their death without inappropriate interference.

According to Florida law, to win a lawsuit for tortious interference with an expected inheritance, a disappointed beneficiary must show that:

  1. They expected to receive an inheritance
  2. The party sued interfered with that expectancy through tortious (illegal) conduct
  3. Causation (that the tortious conduct directly affected the beneficiary’s expectancy)
  4. Damages or injury suffered by the would-be beneficiary

This is an unusual civil case because it cannot be filed before the death of the testator. That means the testator cannot testify to what they wanted or intended, or what the third party did or said to them. Obviously this creates difficult evidentiary issues, but it is for this reason that certain presumptions can apply which shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant. These are discussed in more detail in our section on “proving undue influence” in Will challenges.

Tortious Interference Claims vs Will Challenges for Undue Influence

In many ways, tortious interference claims are similar to Will challenges for undue influence. Both are legal actions based on a person’s improper interference with a testator’s Will (or other estate planning process) that results in beneficiaries receiving less than they expected. However, while a Will challenge happens within the Florida probate process, a lawsuit for tortious interference with an expected inheritance is a separate lawsuit filed in civil court. The Florida courts have ruled that before a beneficiary can file tortious interference claims they must first exhaust their probate court remedies, if any.

In addition, depending on your relationship to the testator, challenging the validity of a Will entered through undue influence may not get you the full value of your expected inheritance. For example, if a business partner expected to be granted the testator’s shares in their joint business, a successful Will challenge could invalidate the Will, only to have those shares be awarded to the testator’s spouse and children under intestate succession instead.

What Does Tortious Interference Look Like?

The definition of tortious interference with an expected inheritance is vague. It can apply to any tortious conduct. Most often, these claims result from some form of fraud or undue influence directed at the testator during their lifetime. However, the claim is broad enough to also allow for tortious interference claims for other illegal behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Fraud: A niece convinces a testator that their child has passed away and does not need to be included in the Will any longer.
  • Coercion: A testator’s son threatens to stop providing elder care or paying for hospice unless the testator agrees to write a sibling out of the Will.
  • Undue Influence: A caregiver prepares a replacement Will on the testator’s behalf and convinces the testator to sign it.
  • Defamation: A beneficiary shares false statements about another beneficiary’s conduct or reputation with the testator to convince the testator to write them out of the Will.
  • Theft: A trustee illegally removed assets or items from the testator’s trust that were intended for the beneficiary.

Relief Available to Beneficiaries Deprived of Their Expected Inheritance

The element of “damages” required to file a claim for tortious interference with an expected inheritance can sometimes make it harder for loved ones to prove their case. They have to be able to prove both:

  • That they were going to receive an inheritance
  • The value of that inheritance

This can be challenging if they did not have access to their loved one’s financial information prior to their death. However, if you are able to establish that you were to receive a specific item that was destroyed or sold, an account that was depleted, or a percentage of the testator’s assets under an earlier version of the Will, you can be entitled to:

  • Compensation for the inheritance lost
  • Consequential damages for costs incurred trying to recover the inheritance and emotional pain
  • Punitive damages punishing the interfering party for their conduct

This means that your recovery in the civil lawsuit could be greater than the relief you would receive in probate court, especially if you are not a natural heir entitled to assets through intestate succession.

Get Help Pursuing Civil Claims for Tortious Interference With an Expected Inheritance

If your loved one has died and you find yourself stripped of your expected inheritance, you need lawyers familiar with both probate and civil court to help you be compensated for your losses. At Harrison Estate Law, P.A., our experienced probate litigation team understands how to employ both Will challenges and lawsuits for tortious interference with expected inheritance to get you the relief you need. Contact us here or call 352-559-9828 to get help today.