In Barclay v. Castruccio, 230 A.3d 80 (Md. 2020), the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided to recognize the tort of intentional interference with a prospective inheritance or gift, and to adopt the standards for that tort as set forth in Restatement of the Law Third, Torts: Liability for Economic Harm § 19. In that case, a residuary beneficiary of an estate filed, inter alia, a claim of intentional interference with an expectancy against the decedent’s widow, alleging that the defendant “maliciously depleted [the plaintiff ’s] inheritance by forcing the Estate’s expenditure of attorneys’ fees to defend against [the defendant’s] groundless lawsuits and efforts to initiate criminal charges” against her.

Before his death, the decedent and the defendant had divided their joint assets, and the decedent had bequeathed $800,000 to the plaintiff, $100,000 to two others, and the remainder of his estate to the defendant, so long as the defendant survived him, executed her own will prior to his death, and filed that will with a county’s Register of Wills, but if the defendant failed to fulfill those terms, the residuary estate would pass to the plaintiff. At the time of the decedent’s death, the defendant had not filed her will, and thus the plaintiff inherited the residuary estate. In her complaint, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant filed seven lawsuits against her and the estate in an effort to overturn the decedent’s estate plan and tried to bring criminal charges against her. The circuit court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint, and the plaintiff appealed the dismissal of her claim of intentional interference with an expectancy. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the dismissal, finding that ‘“the complaint cannot support a claim for interference with expected inheritance, even if we were to recognize one.”’

Affirming, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that it would recognize the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance or gift as set forth in Restatement of the Law Third, Torts: Liability for Economic Harm § 19. Citing § 19, Comment a, the court explained that “interfering with an expected inheritance is just a species of interference with economic expectancy,” and “it is settled law in Maryland that one may recover for wrongful interference with contractual or economic relations.” The court observed that the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance or gift has been recognized in about half the states (citing § 19, Reporter’s Note to Comment a), and pointed out that, by “includ[ing] an explicit directive that the tort ‘is not available to a plaintiff who had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court,’” § 19(2), and Comment c, “plainly and fully addressed” the concern that the tort could interfere with probate jurisdiction.

The court proceeded to determine that the dismissal of the plaintiff ’s interference-with-inheritance claim was correct because the alleged interference occurred after the decedent’s death, and the plaintiff did not claim that the defendant interfered with the decedent’s designation of the plaintiff as the beneficiary. The court reasoned that the Illustrations in § 18 (Interference with Economic Expectation) “reveal 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,” and that § 19 and Comment b thereto, as well as § 19’s relevant Illustrations, “suggest[] that the defendant must interfere with an ongoing relationship, and therefore groundless litigation post-death will not suffice.” The court was also persuaded by the fact that successful interference cases in Maryland, as well as other jurisdictions, arose from an interference with an ongoing or prospective relationship, rather than an interference occurring after the relationship had ended, such as in this case.

The concurring opinion agreed with the majority’s adoption of § 19, noting that § 19 “closely mirrors the standard of liability for intentional interference with an economic relationship as articulated by this Court . . . and is narrowly tailored to provide a remedy only in limited circumstances where there is no remedy within the probate process,” but argued that § 19 required that the defendant interfere with the plaintiff ’s gift or expectancy, not the plaintiff ’s relationship with the decedent, and therefore did “not require that the predicate harm, which forms the basis for the cause of action, occur prior to death.” The concurring judge nevertheless agreed that dismissal of the plaintiff ’s action was appropriate under § 19 because she had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.

The American Law Institute

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.