California Court of Appeal: Intentional Interference With Expected Inheritance

On May 3, 2012, California’s tort law became aligned with the majority of U.S. states in recognizing the tort of intentional interference with expected inheritance (“IIEI”). The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, in the case Beckwith v. Dahl, held that IIEI is a viable cause of action and provided six elements that must be satisfied in order to make a claim of IIEI.

The Case: Beckwith v. Dahl

The factual allegations associated with Beckwith v. Dahl are not entirely unique as they involve a domestic partner who was unintentionally disinherited due to a lack of a valid will or trust. In Beckwith v. Dahl, Mr. Beckwith was the long-term domestic partner of the decedent, Mr. MacGinnis. 

Mr. Beckwith and Mr. MacGinnis were in a committed relationship for nearly ten years when Mr. MacGinnis required major surgery. Mr. MacGinnis had previously drafted, but did not sign, a will leaving his Estate equally to Mr. Beckwith and his only remaining family member, his estranged sister, Ms. Dahl. Several days prior to his surgery, Mr. MacGinnis recognized the uncertainty associated with his condition and requested that Mr. Beckwith find the will and deliver it to him. Mr. Beckwith failed to locate the will and Mr. MacGinnis requested that he draft a new will leaving his Estate to Mr. Beckwith and Ms. Dahl in equal shares. Mr. Beckwith called Ms. Dahl to discuss the will at which time she advised Mr. Beckwith that a trust was preferable and that she would contact a lawyer to draft a trust instrument. Mr. MacGinnis never had a chance to sign either the will or the trust as he died several days later.

Following his death, Mr. MacGinnis’ estate, valued at over one million dollars, was subject to probate and intestate succession. Ms. Dahl as the last remaining family member had priority over all interested parties and was appointed administrator of the Estate. Ms. Dahl advised Mr. Beckwith that he would not receive any share of the Estate at which time Mr. Beckwith contested the matter. The probate judge held that Mr. Beckwith had no standing as he had no “intestate rights”. Mr. Beckwith then initiated a civil suit alleging causes of action of IIEI, deceit by false promise, and negligence. Mr. Beckwith’s first claim was dismissed and Mr. Beckwith appealed the decision. The Court of Appeals held that while a claim for IIEI exists under California law, Mr. Beckwith failed to satisfy the sixth element of the cause of action described below.

Elements of Intentional Interference with Expected Inheritance

The Court of Appeals held a cause of action of IIEI exists when a probate remedy is not available and the six described below are satisfied. The six elements are:

1)     Expectation of Inheritance

A plaintiff’s complaint must plead that he/she had a legitimate expectation of receiving an inheritance.

2)     Causation

There must be a reasonable degree of certainty that the bequest would have been in effect at the time of death.

3)     Intent

Defendant had specific knowledge of plaintiff’s expectancy of an inheritance and took affirmative steps to interfere with that inheritance.

4)     Tortious Interference

The underlying wrong must be wrong for some reason other than the fact of the interference.

5)     Damage

Plaintiff must plead that he/she has been damaged by defendant’s interference.

6)     Harm to Someone Other Than Plaintiff

Plaintiff must plead that defendant directed the independently tortious conduct at someone other than the plaintiff. In other words, the defendant’s actions must have induced or caused the testator to take some action that deprives the plaintiff of his expected inheritance. An obvious example would be a domestic partner telling a lie that his partner was cheating resulting in that partner disinheriting the other.


With Beckwith v. Dahl, California’s law becomes consistent with the laws of the majority of U.S. states in recognizing IIEI. However, it will take several years to truly flesh out the six somewhat convoluted elements of this cause of action in subsequent case law. 


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