Inheritance theft can be difficult to detect at first, but once it occurs, its effects can be devastating. If you are someone you know has been robbed of their inheritance, it’s important to know that there are laws in place that can protect you.
In Carlton v. Carlton, 575 So.2d 239 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991), the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida noted that Florida has long recognized the right to a cause of action for the tort of intentional interference with an expected gift or inheritance. It cited Dewitt v. Duce, 408 So.2d 216 (Fla. 1981), Watts v. Haun, 393 So.2d 54 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981), Davison v. Feuerherd, 391 So.2d 799 (Fla. 2d DCA 1980), and Allen v. Leybourne, 190 So.2d 825 (Fla. 3d DCA 1966) as examples.
Tortious interference with an expected inheritance is a kind of civil lawsuit that people can file if they were intended beneficiaries deprived of some or all of an inheritance because of a third party’s actions. Actions may be filed by any beneficiary denied an inheritance, whether a person is a natural heir of a person who died, or a friend or business colleague promised something under a person’s will.
Cause of Action for Inheritance Theft
A legal claim for tortious interference with an expected inheritance happens when a person intentionally prevents, either through fraud, duress, or other tortious means, another person from receiving an inheritance or gift that the other person would have received. Plaintiffs in these cases must allege the following:
- The person had an expectancy of receiving an inheritance.
- Another party intentionally interfered with that expectancy through tortious conduct.
- The intentional interference caused the expectancy to change.
- The would-be beneficiary suffered damages.
These cases can be challenging. Because they cannot be filed before a testator dies, a testator is unable to declare what their intentions actually are.
Undue influence is an incredibly common challenge to wills in Florida, as people often argue that testators were vulnerable to coercion because of their diminished mental capacity, testators were isolated from friends and family, or a beneficiary pressured a testator into changing their will. There can also be issues with last-minute changes to wills and inconsistent statements by a testator.
While a will challenge based on undue influence is typically undertaken during the probate process, tortious interference with an expected inheritance will be a lawsuit a person files in civil court. Florida courts have held that before a person can undertake an action for tortious interference with an expected inheritance, they must exhaust their probate court remedies first.
Types of Tortious Interference
Tortious interference is not a well-defined term, as the action can apply to many different kinds of actions constituting tortious conduct. There are several kinds of illegal behavior that may prompt these types of claims, with common examples including:
- Fraud – One party may convince a testator that another party passed away and should not be included in a will.
- Coercion or duress – A party may threaten a testator in some fashion to get them to write another party out of a will.
- Forgery – There may be cases in which people believe that wills were forged by other parties.
- Undue influence – Another party may prepare a will on a testator’s behalf and convince them to sign it.
- Defamation – A party might share false statements about another party’s conduct or reputation with a testator to convince them to write that party out of the will.
- Theft – A trustee may have illegally removed assets or items from a testator’s trust that were intended for a beneficiary.
Tortious interference cases may also involve allegations of an executor stealing or attempting to hide assets from an estate inventory, a trustee diverting assets from a trust for their own use or benefit, executors or trustees charging excessive fees for their services, or an abuse of power of attorney status. It is possible for some inheritance theft cases to result in both civil and criminal charges.
Allen v. Leybourne, 190 So. 2d 825 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1966) was perhaps the first tortious interference case in Florida, and the Third District Court of Appeal of Florida held that when there is an allegation that a testator had a fixed intention to make a bequest in favor of a person and there was a strong probability that this intention would have been carried out but for the wrongful acts of another party, there exists a cause of action. Before this case, many tortious interference claims were outright denied because there was a presumption that a testator changed their mind.
A tortious interference claim can also involve Florida’s theft statute under Florida Statute § 772.11. While such actions can be attractive to many people because of the possibility of treble (triple) damages, they are not always appropriate for tortious interference cases.
Damages in a Tortious Interference Case
Damages required to file a claim for tortious interference with an expected inheritance can make it more difficult for a person to prove a case. A person must prove that they were going to receive an inheritance and the value of that inheritance.
Both aspects can be challenging when a person does not have access to a testator’s financial information before their death. When a person can establish that they were supposed to receive a specific item that was later destroyed or sold, accounts that were depleted, or a certain percentage of a testator’s assets under an earlier version of a will, they can be entitled to compensation for the inheritance lost, damages for costs incurred trying to recover the inheritance and emotional pain, and possibly punitive damages in a limited number of cases.
Contact Our Florida Inheritance Theft Attorney
Have questions about inheritance theft laws in Florida? If so, you should contact Upchurch Law. Coping with inheritance theft can be challenging. But with the help of the Florida estate law and a seasoned attorney on your side, you can have the best chance at getting justice and achieving the most favorable outcome for your case. Upchurch Law provides experienced estate litigation lawyers for these matters, and we work hard to help people prove inheritance theft, in cases just like yours.
Our firm understands how challenging it can be for people to challenge wills in court, but we can help you present the strongest possible case.
Call our office at (386) 272-7445 or contact our Florida inheritance theft attorney online to schedule an initial consultation now.
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