Have you heard of a lawsuit for “intentional interference with an inheritance”? Sometimes the language might be “wrongful” interference, or interference with “an expectancy,” but the idea is pretty much the same. How is this concept different from a will or trust challenge? Does it still rely on allegations of undue influence or similar claims?
Suppose that you believe one of your siblings persuaded your father to change his will (or trust). But after your father’s death, there was no probate proceeding initiated, and now it’s too late to challenge the will or trust directly. Can the “intentional interference” claim help you challenge the outcome?
An instructive Massachusetts case
Last week we read an appellate opinion from Massachusetts that helped spell out some of the rules. It involved a trust established by one Aaron Sacks, who died in 2017. His wife Sheila lived another two years, and her death set the stage for the legal dispute that followed.
In 2011 Aaron established a revocable living trust, partly to avoid having a probate proceeding upon his death. The trust named Sheila as the primary beneficiary upon his death, and when both had died it was to divide among the couple’s five children (Jeffrey, Nancy, Joan, Donna and Cheryl).
The Sacks’ only son (Jeffrey) was diagnosed with a brain tumor even before the trust was signed. Jeffrey’s son Matthew, two of his sisters and his medical team all supported his eventual decision to forego continued treatment. Jeffrey died shortly after.
Aaron’s wife (Jeffrey’s mother) and daughter Nancy (Jeffrey’s sister) believed that his son and two of his other sisters had been “complicit” in his “murder.” The two of them persuaded Aaron to modify his trust so that Jeffrey’s children would be left out. After the death of both Aaron and Sheila, the estate would be divided among just the four remaining daughters.
When Aaron died in 2017, his trust became irrevocable. It still continued for Sheila’s benefit, however, and so there was no proceeding or notification to future beneficiaries.
How could Jeffrey’s children challenge the trust?
Massachusetts law (like Arizona’s) limits challenges to a trust that was revocable at the settlor’s death. Jeffrey’s children had one year to file a claim. But they didn’t even know about the disinheritance until their grandmother Sheila’s death two years later.
Enter the concept of “intentional interference with an inheritance.” Jeffrey’s two children could not file a trust challenge. But they could make a claim against their aunt Nancy and their grandmother’s estate. That’s what they did.
Sheila’s estate (and Nancy) argued that the new Uniform Trust Code (adopted in Massachusetts in 2012) eliminated any challenges to trusts one year after the settlor’s death. The trial judge agreed, and dismissed their lawsuit.
But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court disagreed. Last week it ruled in favor of Jeffrey’s two children, and reinstated their claim for intentional interference with an inheritance and for unjust enrichment. Importantly, the state high court understood that the claim was not against the trust itself, or an attempt to modify the trust terms. The lawsuit was against their grandmother and aunt individually, for the acts they had undertaken that lead to the disinheritance. Sacks v. Dissinger, December 29, 2021.
Thus, the claim of intentional interference with an inheritance is not a will or trust contest. Courts usually reject the intentional interference claim unless a will or trust contest can not be filed for some reason. That is often because time for filing a claim has expired.
Would Arizona courts rule the same way?
According to a 2013 law review article on the subject, about half of the states have expressly approved the intentional (or wrongful) interference claim. Only a handful of states have clearly rejected the possibility. Arizona is not in either category.
In other words, no Arizona appellate court has ruled on whether the claim of intentional interference with an inheritance is valid in this state. Massachusetts was in the “yes” category long before the Sacks decision last week, so it did not break entirely new ground.
The law review article, incidentally, is very critical of the intentional interference claim. The authors decry a cause of action that “profoundly conflicts with fundamental rules and policies of inheritance law.” But somehow it seems important for Jeffrey’s children to be able to assert their claims.