June 27, 2022

Maryland Recognizes a New Cause of Action: Intentional Interference with an Inheritance or Gift

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Maryland recently joined several other states in recognizing a cause of action for the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance or gift (or, “inheritance interference”). In Barclay v. Castruccio, the Court of Appeals clarified that “we recognize the tort of intentional interference with a prospective gift or inheritance, and adopt the standards set forth in Section 19 of the Third Restatement of Torts.”¹ Thus, so long as the alleged interference pertains to an ongoing or prospective relationship (i.e., the testator is still alive), the Barclay decision:  (1) creates the potential for new remedies outside of the probate court system for those who were deprived of an inheritance or a gift due to someone else’s wrongdoing, and (2)  better ensures that the intentions of a decedent will ultimately be enforced.

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Background

Peter Castruccio executed his Last Will and Testament in 2010, bequeathing $800,000.00 to Darlene Barclay—a long-time employee whom Peter regarded as his own daughter. Significantly, Peter’s Will bequeathed the remainder of his Estate to his wife, Sadie Castruccio, so long as Sadie: (1) outlived Peter, (2) executed her own will before Peter’s death, and (3) filed her will with Anne Arundel County’s Register of Wills. If Sadie failed to fulfil these conditions, then Darlene would receive the remainder of Peter’s Estate instead. At the time of Peter’s death in 2013, Sadie had not fulfilled the third requirement of Peter’s Will; thus, Darlene inherited Peter’s residuary Estate, valued at approximately $6.7 million.

Darlene claimed that, shortly after Peter’s death, Sadie began “interfering” in order to overturn the estate plan. Sadie’s efforts included filing a total of seven lawsuits and a lengthy memorandum with the Office of the State’s Attorney in an attempt to bring criminal charges against Darlene. Over the years, litigation around the matter made its way to the Maryland appellate courts 13 times (counting the decision discussed herein).

In February 2017, Darlene, having been delayed from receiving her inheritance and forced to incur substantial legal fees related to the litigation, filed suit against Sadie in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. Darlene’s complaint asserted, among other claims, “intentional interference with an expectancy.” The Circuit Court granted Sadie’s motion to dismiss. Darlene challenged the dismissal of the intentional interference with an expectancy claim and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal. Darlene appealed.

Analysis

First, the Court of Appeals considered the well-settled “umbrella tort” of interference with contractual or economic relations. Maryland recognizes this tort when a defendant either induces the breach of an existing contract or maliciously or wrongfully interferes with an economic relationship. The Court stated that “[a]pplication of this tort to inheritances or gifts would fit in the broader category of malicious or wrongful interference with economic relationships.”² It further clarified that, in the context of the well-settled umbrella tort,  “[t]he relationship must be between three parties, ‘the parties to a contract or other economic relationship and the interferer.’³

Next, the Court looked to guidance from other states that have grappled with the adoption of inheritance interference. The Court especially focused its attention on the North Carolina Supreme Court’s seminal case of Bohannon v. Wachovia Bank & Tr. Co.,⁴ quoting that court’s ruling which emphasized that “[i]f the plaintiff can recover against the defendant for the malicious and wrongful interference with the making of a contract, we see no good reason why he cannot recover for the malicious and wrongful interference with the making of a will.”⁵

However, while the Court was ultimately persuaded by the Bohannon logic that interfering with an expected inheritance is analogous to interference with economic expectancy, the Court remained cautious regarding the “added complication” inherent in wills—i.e., “the need to protect the special jurisdiction of the probate court.”⁶

The Court reconciled this by adopting Section 19 of the Restatement of Torts (Third) as the governing standard for Maryland in conjunction with a requirement that “at the time of the alleged interference, there must be something to interfere with, i.e., a current or prospective relationship or contract.”⁷ Per Section 19 of the Restatement of Torts (Third): 

  1. A defendant is subject to liability for interference with an inheritance or gift if:

          (a) the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift;

          (b) the defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong;

          (c) the defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy;

          (d) the defendant’s conduct caused the expectancy to fail; and

          (e) the plaintiff suffered injury as a result.

  1. A claim under this Section is not available to a plaintiff who had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.

The Court carefully examined the illustrations accompanying the Restatement (Third) and determined that “the core principle underlying the interference tort generally is that the defendant shall have taken some wrongful action that interferes with a contract, a business relationship or with a testator's or donor's relationship with the plaintiff. The key word is relationship.”⁸

As the Court noted, while Darlene had a relationship with Peter that motivated the bequest, the interference was required to have targeted Peter himself, resulting in a change to his Will during his lifetime (i.e., while Peter and Darlene’s relationship still existed). Thus, according to the Court, interference with an ongoing or prospective relationship is necessary. Absent this relationship factor, even with the adoption of the tort of inheritance interference, the probate court still remains the appropriate forum to determine the validity of a will and is considered available for purposes of claims pursuant to Section 19 of the Restatement of Torts (Third), “even if it offers less generous relief than would be attainable in tort.”⁹

In applying the new tort and its constraints to Darlene’s claim, the Court determined that Darlene did not plead facts sufficient to establish a cause of action of inheritance interference, because the alleged interference (Sadie’s serial litigation after Peter’s death) was not an interference with Darlene’s relationship with Peter. Peter successfully executed his Last Will and Testament, and Darlene inherited the residual Estate in accordance therewith; so, although Sadie’s many lawsuits may have effectively reduced Darlene’s inheritance through costs and attorneys’ fees and postponed Darlene’s receipt of the inheritance, the facts did not satisfy a claim for inheritance interference. 

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals’ adoption of the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance or gift has expanded the remedies available to individuals that have been denied an expected inheritance or gift (with the caveat that the interference must be with an ongoing or prospective relationship between living parties). This new tort is projected to be a strong deterrent for individuals who may seek to influence or usurp upon another’s inheritance as the new tort provides an opportunity for a plaintiff to recover directly from the pockets of the party who interfered with the plaintiff’s reasonable expectation of an inheritance or gift.

If you believe that your inheritance rights were altered as a result of another’s actions, our experienced attorneys can help you determine if you have a claim for tortious interference with your expected inheritance. Contact us at (410) 497-5947 or schedule a consultation with our team here.

Footnotes

  1. 469 Md. 368, 390 (2020) (emphasis added).
  2. Id. at 376.
  3. Id. citingK & K Management, Inc. v. Lee, 316 Md. 137, 154 (1989) (emphasis added).
  4. 210 N.C. 679 (1936).
  5. Barclay at 379.
  6. Id. at 380.
  7. Id. at 384-388.
  8. Id. at 384.
  9. Id. at 382.
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