Thursday, June 11, 2015

Caselaw Updates: Tortious Interference with Inheritance Rights

I don't love continuing legal education classes.  Here's why:

1. I don't like many things that are mandatory, and they are.
2. I'm surrounded by lawyers.
3. They are expensive.
4. They are usually in an overly cold/hot room and sometimes via video, which is not an ideal learning environment, (albeit a solid napping environment).

I don't love the dentist either. But both are necessary evils. One of the best CLE's is the annual Advanced Estate Planning and Probate seminar, which highlights updates in the law and new techniques to employ.

Some highlights:


Tortious Interference with Inheritance Rights

There is a cause of action/tort in Texas called "tortious interference with inheritance rights." Sort of. Sort of, as its only recognized and mentioned in some general treatises (Restatement of Torts) and by a handful of cases.

What that means is, if you are in the RIGHT court, you should be able to recover damages from someone who does something improper that causes your inheritance to be diminished.  It is fairly difficult to get an award for this, but it seems the way to punish someone for trying to steal an estate. To do so, you need to prove:

(1) that an interference with one's property or property rights occurred;
(2) such interference was intentional and caused damage; and
(3) the interference was conducted with neither just cause nor legal excuse.

For example, a housekeeper/caregiver forging a bogus beneficiary designation or will on the deathbed of your parent. Or a sibling unduly influencing that parent to cut you out and leave everything to them. Just filing a will contest though, is not tortious interference.

Anyway, two recent rulings affect this tort.  In Jackson Walker v. Kinsel, the Court of Appeals in Amarillo (7th District, Texas) held that actually, there is no tort at all. Their logic is that the Fort Worth Court,  the Texas Supreme Court, and the Texas Legislature haven't spelled out that it actually exists in Texas, so they are not going to do it.

Takeaway: Ok, I get it, courts are not supposed to create law. This however is a bad ruling: its a recognized tort, its a good tort (there needs to be a damages mechanism for people who try and steal estates) and this essentially says if you're in the Amarillo jurisdiction, there really is not any real downside to try and steal someone's inheritance.  This is such a rampant area, and the enforcement of it is almost nonexistent. We need to punish folks who do this, else there is no disincentive for the next one.

The other ruling, In re Hannah, says a tortious interference with inheritance case is filed like a normal tort damages case, if there is no underlying "probate proceeding." Ok, big deal. Well, while expressly acknowledging that tortious interference is a legit cause of action, it can be the only cause of action. Just not in Amarillo, apparently.

Conclusion: There is a theory called tortious interference with inheritance rights where, in theory, you can get money damages against someone who tries to steal/take away/interfere with your inheritance. Just not in Amarillo, for the time being, and likely some other places. If you want to steal inheritances, do so in Amarillo.

I'll write more on updates as they come along, but in a semi-unrelated aside, if you watched the HBO documentary Gasland, you likely saw the sad story of the Town of Dish, who have filed suit against various energy companies for their crashing property values and damages from the pollution and emissions from the oil and gas development and processing in their town. Apparently they lost a summary judgment ruling at the trial court, but our friends at the Amarillo Court of Appeals have them back in the game. Kind of a fun read, if you are into such things.

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