The Texas Supreme Court resolved a longstanding debate and an unusual split in lower courts by declaring that there is no cause of action for intentional interference with inheritance.
One issue for those victimized by persons taking undue advantage of the elderly is what remedies are available when an inheritance is interfered with. Last year the Texas Supreme Court held that neither the Legislature nor the Supreme Court had recognized a tort for interference with an inheritance but left open whether the court might do so in the future. Kinsel v. Lindsay, 526 S.W.3d 411, 423 (Tex. 2017).
Subsequent to Kinsel the two Houston Courts of Appeal entered opposite holdings. The First District held that a cause of action for intentional interference with an inheritance exists. Yost v. Fails, 534 S.W.3d 517, 529-30 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2017, no pet.). Within weeks, the Fourteenth District rejected Yost and declined to recognize such a cause of action. Rice v. Rice, 533 S.W.3d 58, 62-63 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.). Both Houston courts have appellate jurisdiction over the same ten-county districts. Cases are randomly assigned between them, meaning that parties and judges in those counties were subject to simultaneous and opposing rules.
Jack Archer executed a will in 1991 that left the bulk of his estate to his brother Richard and his children (the Archers) and the rest to charities. In 1998, Jack suffered a stroke and became delusional and sometimes disoriented. Jack’s friend, Ted Anderson, hired a lawyer and had Jack sign new wills and trust documents leaving his entire estate to the charities. While Jack was still alive, the Archers sued seeking a declaration that Jack lacked mental capacity to execute the new wills and trusts. The charities agreed not to probate the new wills in exchange for the Archers’ agreement to give them Jack’s coin collection worth $588,000 and pay their attorney fees.
After Jack died, his 1991 will was probated and the Archers received their bequests. They sued Anderson’s estate for intentional interference with their inheritance. Unlike many elder abuse cases, Anderson never personally profited from his actions and the Archers received their inheritance under Jack’s prior will. But they alleged damages consisting of the $588,000 they had to give the charities in settlement plus $2.8 million in attorney fees incurred in avoiding Jack’s post-1991 wills and trusts.
In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court rejected the claim. “Because existing law affords adequate remedies for the wrongs the tort would redress, and because the tort would conflict with Texas probate law, we hold that there is no cause of action in Texas for intentional interference with inheritance.” The court reasoned that probate law protects a donor’s right to freely dispose of his property as he chooses, while a prospective beneficiary has no right to a future inheritance only an expectation that is dependent on the donor. Recognizing a tort of intentional interference with inheritance would give a beneficiary a right he or she does not otherwise have and one that might conflict with the interests and private motives of the donor. The court agreed with commentators that tort law “is ill-suited to posthumous reconstruction of the true intent of a decedent.” John C.P. Goldberg & Robert H. Sitkoff, Torts and Estates: Remedying Wrongful Interference with Inheritance, 65 Stan. L. Rev. 335 (2013). Probate doctrines like undue influence and duress distinguish between legitimate persuasion and overbearing influence on a testator. If these remedies are inadequate, establishing new remedies is better suited to the legislature than through “judicial adventurism.”
The dissenters agreed with the majority that the Archers had adequate remedies without a claim for intentional interference with inheritance. But they argued forcefully that it was too soon to reject such a tort for all time, citing statistics on elder abuse including abuse within guardianships. The dissenters argued that the Court could not state that current law affords adequate remedies for all situations where elderly persons are wrongfully relieved of assets intended for others. They would have withheld a decision about whether to recognize or reject the tort until the full effects of Kinsel could be seen and evaluated.