Can You Sue Someone for “Interfering” with Your Inheritance?
Disinheriting a child often leads to hurt feelings and, in some cases, legal action after a parent’s death. Although there is no legal reason you cannot disinherit your own child, if the disinheritance is the result of another person’s undue influence, the child may have standing to contest your will or trust. And Florida law also recognizes a special kind of tort known as “interference of a testamentary expectancy,” which allows them to seek damages against the party who exercised the undue influence.
Appeals Court Reverses $60,000 Award to Disinherited Daughter
Intentional interference claims are difficult to win. Indeed, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal recently reversed a jury award to a disinherited child after finding there was insufficient evidence to support the claim. The case, Mulvey v. Stephens, involved a common type of intra-family dispute: a child alleging their stepmother exercised undue influence over her father.
The deceased man owned a large piece of land in St. Lucie County, Florida. He originally placed this land into a revocable living trust. The trust was designed to benefit the man’s children and grandchildren.
Several years after executing the trust, and following the death of his first wife, the man remarried. During the course of the marriage, the man amended his estate plan several more times. These changes effectively removed the St. Lucie property from the trust and left most of his estate through a 2010 will to his second wife.
After the man died in 2011, his daughter sought to probate an earlier will, arguing the 2010 will was the product of her stepmother’s undue influence. The probate court rejected the daughter’s allegations and admitted the 2010 will. The daughter then filed a separate lawsuit against the stepmother, accusing her of tortious interference with expectancy.
Basically, the daughter’s argument was that but-for her stepmother’s tortious interference, she would have received an inheritance under her father’s pre-2011 will. The case was tried before a jury, which ruled in the daughter’s favor and ordered the stepmother to pay $60,000 in damages. The stepmother appealed, claiming there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict.
The Fourth District agreed with the stepmother. Tortious interference requires a tort of some sort. But here, “there was no evidence of an independent tort committed by the Widow.” To the contrary, there was no evidence produced at trial that suggested the stepmother exercised any control over her late husband’s property during his lifetime. She did not even know about the trust. As for removing the St. Lucie property from the trust and leaving it to his wife, the stepmother testified she had “loaned him a substantial sum of money and that was his way of paying it back.”
There was also no evidence that the stepmother ever lied to her husband in an attempt to influence his estate planning decisions. At worst, she made negative remarks to the children–e.g., telling them they would inherit nothing from their father–but the Fourth District said that did not rise to the level of tortious interference.
Need Help Revising Your Estate Plan?
It is always a good idea to convey your estate planning intentions to your children, so as to avoid any potential misunderstanding after you die. And if you need assistance in revising your will or trust from a qualified Fort Myers estate planning attorney, contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 to schedule a free consultation today.