“Intentional Interference” Tort Claim Recognized in Alabama

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FEBRUARY 12, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 33

Leland and Christine Belcher were married for forty years, but never had any children. After Leland died, Christine Belcher met and married David Yates. Under the law of Alabama (where the Yates’ lived), David Yates would inherit all of Christine Belcher Yates’ estate if she died before him—unless she signed a will making some other disposition.

Christine Yates tried to do just that. She retained lawyer Thomas Nettles to prepare a new will, and met with him over the course of several months to discuss what the will should provide. When she was admitted to the hospital for heart problems in 1997 she contacted her lawyer and asked him to bring the will to her for signing.

Mr. Nettles visited Mrs. Yates in the hospital, and even brought along her accountant David Burton. The three discussed the final language of her will, and she instructed her lawyer to make one final round of changes. He and the accountant left Mrs. Yates hospital room intending to do just that.

The next day lawyer Nettles had a telephone conversation with David Yates. Mrs. Yates’ husband angrily told Mr. Nettles that his attempts to secure Mrs. Yates’ signature on a new will were not appreciated. After objecting to the hospital visit by Mrs. Yates’ attorney and accountant, Mr. Yates hung up on Mr. Nettles.

Based on that angry telephone call the lawyer did not pursue contact with his client. While she could have contacted him to inquire when he would be bringing the will back for her signature, she apparently did not. She died four days later without having signed her new will, and David Yates inherited her entire estate.

Mr. Yates himself died a short time after his wife’s death. As a result of Mrs. Yates’ failure to sign a final will her estate passed to her husband’s heirs rather than her intended beneficiaries.

Mrs. Yates’ niece and nephew, as two of the persons who would have received her estate had the will been signed, brought a lawsuit against her husband’s estate. They alleged that Mr. Yates had intentionally interfered with their expected inheritance from Mrs. Yates.

Only a few states recognize “intentional interference with an expectancy.” In fact, Alabama’s legal history includes a case in which the state’s Supreme Court refused to allow the claim. Mrs. Yates’ case persuaded the court—by a 5-2 vote—to change its mind and permit her heirs to try to prove their case at trial. Batchelor v. Yates, January 5, 2001.

Usually the tort claim of “intentional interference with an expectancy” looks very much like a will contest, and so state courts have been slow to approve the redundant cause of action. In Mrs. Yates’ case there was no will contest possible—it was the very lack of a will that gave rise to her heirs’ claim.

[Footnote: On May 18, 2001, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed itself. Without explaining why, the Court granted a rehearing, withdrew its earlier opinion and ended the heirs’ legal claim. That may not mean that the claim of intentional interference with an expectancy is dead in Alabama, but this case no longer establishes precedent for the concept.]

Robert B. Fleming

Attorney

Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman

Attorney

Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson

Attorney

Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour

Attorney

Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.