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Developments in Ohio Probate Litigation: Intentional Interference with Expectancy of an Inheritance

October 24, 2016, by Daniel McGowan, on Appellate Practice in Probate, New Probate & Trust Cases, Probate Law and Procedure |

As previously discussed in this blog, the Ohio Supreme Court first recognized the tort of intentional interference within expectancy of inheritance in Firestone v. Galbreath and set forth the elements as: (1) an existence of an expectancy of inheritance in the Plaintiffs; (2) an intentional interference by the Defendant(s) with that expectancy of inheritance; (3) conduct by the Defendant involving the interference which is tortious, such as fraud, duress or undue influence, in nature; (4) a reasonable certainty that the expectancy of inheritance would have been realized, but for the interference by the Defendant; and (5) damage resulting from the interference.

 

How has the Law Developed in Ohio after Firestone?

 

Sull v. Kaim is a great example of the recent significant developments in Ohio law concerning the issue of the validity of the will in intentional interference with expectancy of inheritance cases. In Sull, the plaintiffs were a group of beneficiaries of the will and revocable trust of Pauline Josephine Kaminski who filed an action sounding in tort against against Kaim, a MetLife agent; and his employer, MetLife, Inc. Simply stated, the beneficiaries claimed that Kaim and MetLife, using undue influence, wrongfully converted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Ms. Kaminsky and thus intentionally interfering with Plaintiffs’ expectancy of an inheritance from Kaminski through the will and trust.

 

The beneficiaries received a favorable verdict after a jury trial including compensatory and punitive damages on their claims for interference with an expectancy grounded on undue influence. On appeal, Kaim claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide plaintiffs’ claim for interference with their expectancy of an inheritance. As best it can be understood, Kaim argued that because there was no probate court determination that Ms. Kaminski’s will and trust under which the beneficiaries expected to take were valid, in order to determine whether the plaintiffs had a legitimate expectancy of an inheritance, the court was required first to determine that these instruments were valid. Ultimately, Kaim argued that the common pleas court did not have jurisdiction to decide plaintiffs’ claims.

 

The Eighth District (which includes Cuyahoga County) summarily rejected Kaim’s theory, stating “We find no legal support for Kaim’s assertion that plaintiffs can only demonstrate and expect an expectancy of an inheritance only if they obtain a determination that the will is valid. Indeed, there is no procedure by which plaintiffs can obtain such a determination in the probate court. While a probate court has exclusive jurisdiction to take proof of wills, as a general matter, the court must admit to probate a will that appears on its face to comply “with the law in force at the time of the execution of the will and the jurisdiction in which it was executed, or with the law enforced in this state at the time of the death of the testator, or with the law in force in the jurisdiction in which the testator was domiciled at the time of his death. There is no determination of issues like testamentary capacity and freedom from undue influence that might affect the validity of the will unless those issues are raised by a will contest. There is a statutory procedure by which a testator can obtain a declaration regarding the validity of his or her will while a testator is still living, but the testator’s failure to obtain this declaration is not evidence that the will is invalid. We are not aware of any procedure by which a beneficiary under a will may obtain a determination that the will is valid unless any party challenges the validity of the will.... It defies logic to argue that the plaintiffs must obtain a determination that is unavailable to them in order to succeed on the merits of their claim for interference with their expectancy of an inheritance. Therefore, we overrule the first assignment of error.”

 

Significantly, the district court observed and confirmed that a probate court is one of limited jurisdiction and, as such, may not adjudicate a tort claim for intentional interference with expectancy of an inheritance.

 

The bottom line is that the plaintiffs’ status as named beneficiaries under Ma. Kaminski’s will and trust were sufficient to confer standing on them and that no judicial determination that the will and trust were valid was necessary to pursue a claim for intentional interference with the expectancy of an inheritance.