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Schilling v. Herrera - 952 So. 2d 1231 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007)

Rule:

To state a cause of action for intentional interference with an expectancy of inheritance, the complaint must allege the following elements: (1) the existence of an expectancy; (2) intentional interference with the expectancy through tortious conduct; (3) causation; and (4) damages. The purpose behind this tort is to protect the testator, not the beneficiary. Interference with an expectancy is an unusual tort because the beneficiary is authorized to sue to recover damages primarily to protect the testator's interest rather than the disappointed beneficiary's expectations. The fraud, duress, undue influence, or other independent tortious conduct required for this tort is directed at the testator. The beneficiary is not directly defrauded or unduly influenced; the testator is. Thus, the common law court has created this cause of action not primarily to protect the beneficiary's inchoate rights, but to protect the deceased testator's former right to dispose of property freely and without improper interference. In a sense, the beneficiary's action is derivative of the testator's rights.

The rule in Florida is that if adequate relief is available in a probate proceeding, then that remedy must be exhausted before a claim of tortious interference with a testamentary expectancy may be pursued. However, an exception to this general rule is that if the defendant's fraud is not discovered until after probate, the plaintiff is allowed to bring a later action for damages since relief in probate was impossible. Cases which allow the action for tortious interference with a testamentary expectancy are predicated on the inadequacy of probate remedies.

Facts:

Plaintiff Edward Schilling, brother of decedent Helen Schilling, was named by the latter to be her attorney-in-fact for health care decisions. When Helen was discharged from the rehabilitation house, defendant Maria Herrera took care of her. Helen became dependent on defendant Herrera. Without Edward’s knowledge, Herrera convinced Helen to prepare and to execute a new Last Will and Testament naming Herrera as personal representative and sole beneficiary of the Helen's estate. Upon Helen's death, Herrera filed her Petition for Administration. After the expiration of the creditors' period and after Herrera had petitioned the probate court for discharge of probate, Herrera finally notified Edward Schilling for the first time that Helen had passed away. Edward Schilling sued Herrera for intentional interference with an expectancy of inheritance, arguing that Herrera's intentional silence was part of a calculated scheme to prevent him from contesting the Estate of Helen Schilling and was intended to induce him to refrain from acting in his interests to contest the probate proceedings in a timely fashion. Herrera moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Schilling failed to state a cause of action and that he was barred from filing his claim because he failed to exhaust his probate remedies. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss without prejudice. Thereafter, Schilling filed an amended complaint asserting the same cause of action. Herrera filed a renewed motion to dismiss. This time, the trial court dismissed the case with prejudice on the ground that defendant Herrera had no duty to notify Schilling of the death of Helen.  Schilling appealed the order of the trial court.

Issue:

1.  Was plaintiff's failure to allege a breach of legal duty owed to him by the defendant fatal to his claim for intentional interference with an expectancy of inheritance against defendant?

2. Was the action of plaintiff for intentional interference with an expectancy of inheritance already barred by the failure of the plaintiff to exhaust all probate remedies?

Answer:

1. No; 2. No.

Conclusion:

1. The Court ruled that the actions of defendant Herrera as alleged by plaintiff, if proved to be true, would constitute a cause of action. The Court explained that there are four elements for a cause of action for intentional interference with an expectancy of inheritance, and breach of a legal duty is not one of the elements. The tortious conduct required for the interference tort was directed at the testator, not the beneficiary. Therefore, the dismissal of the case based on the failure to allege that defendant Herrera breached a legal duty owed to plaintiff Schillings had no merit.

2. The Court held that Schilling’s claim for intentional interference with an expectancy of inheritance was not barred. Decisions of the Court in the past in in connection with barring actions that did not exhaust all probate remedies were based on the fact that the plaintiffs had an adequate remedy in probate; the plaintiffs had a fair opportunity to pursue their remedy; and the plaintiffs' failure to pursue their remedy was due to their lack of diligence. By alleging that the Herrera did not advise plaintiff Edward Schilling of Helen's death until after Herrera had petitioned the probate court for discharge of probate, Schilling sufficiently alleged that he was prevented from contesting the will in the probate court due to the caretaker's fraudulent conduct. The Court ruled that the claim of Schilling was not barred.

The Court reversed the findings of the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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