- Friday, June 29, 2018
On June 22, 2018, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of Texas settled a conflict in appellate court rulings by holding there is no cause of action in Texas for intentional interference with inheritance. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, writing for the majority, reasoned that existing remedies in probate law, such as claims of undue influence, duress, restitution through the imposition of a constructive trust, and evidentiary rules and procedures were adequate to protect the interests of a prospective beneficiary.
The facts of the case were as follows: Uncle, who had no children, signed a will in 1991 leaving most of his estate to his nephew and the nephew’s children. After the uncle suffered a stroke, his friend and attorney persuaded him to disinherit his nephew and leave his estate to charities. In a guardianship proceeding, and before the uncle died, the nephew learned of the new wills and sued the attorney for interference with his right to inherit his uncle’s estate. The nephew alleged his uncle lacked the mental capacity to execute the subsequent wills and trust instrument. He also sued the charities, who agreed not to probate the later wills. The nephew reached a settlement agreement with the charities and received most of the uncle’s estate. He continued his suit against the lawyer. The lawyer died while the action was still pending. The uncle died a month later. The lawyer did not profit under the wills for trust. The only motivation cited by the family was the lawyer’s alleged personal malice to the family.
In declining to recognize a new tort in Texas for tortious interference, the court weighed the rights of the donor and the interests of the beneficiary. On one hand, probate law protects a donor’s right to freely dispose of his property as he chooses. By contrast, a beneficiary has no right to a future inheritance; he has only an expectation that is dependent upon the donor’s exercise of his own right. The court took a judicially conservative approach in deciding whether to recognize a new cause of action. The issue for the majority was whether “additional or different remedies than those already afforded by statutory probate law and a suit in equity for unjust enrichment” were warranted. In a broad holding, the court flatly stated: “The tort of intentional interference with inheritance is not recognized in Texas.”