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Can Someone Tortiously Interfere With A Maryland Inheritance?

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When someone passes away, and they leave a will, it will normally be submitted to the Orphans’ Court (the probate court in the state of Maryland) and then admitted to probate once its authenticity and validity has been established. The law does allow any of the decedent’s heirs or ‘legatees’ to file what is known as a petition to caveat (contest) the will, providing they do so in a timely manner. That said, if one consciously engages in bad-faith litigation or otherwise attempts to obstruct an inheritance, there was formerly no recourse – however, an opinion out of the Court of Appeals has created one potential avenue for redress.

Court of Appeals Creates Cause Of Action

A recent opinion from the Maryland Court of Appeals shows that pressing one’s luck in a petition to caveat can have negative consequences. Dr. Peter Castruccio passed away in 2013, leaving behind his wife Sadie. Dr. Castruccio left a will which stated that if his wife survived him “and [had] made and executed a will” before his death, she would inherit the entire residuary estate. However, Mrs. Castruccio had not made a will at the time of her husband’s passing, which meant that the residuary estate went to Ms. Darlene Barclay, who had been Dr. Castruccio’s longtime assistant.

Immediately, Mrs. Castruccio filed a petition to caveat the will, which ultimately failed to change the estate distribution. A few months later, she filed an action to quiet title to 7 pieces of real property held by the estate, which was denied, allowing the estate to retain the property. About 7 weeks afterward, Mrs. Castruccio filed a removal action, seeking to terminate the personal representative’s duties on behalf of the estate. During this action, she and her attorneys ignored several third-party subpoenas and ultimately wound up withdrawing the petition voluntarily. Five more trips to Maryland courts ultimately resulted, with Mrs. Castruccio essentially trying everything to retain control of her late husband’s estate.

Ultimately, Ms. Barclay filed suit against Mrs. Castruccio in 2017, alleging intentional interference with inheritance, citing the multitude of lawsuits (some, not all, of which were deemed frivolous) Mrs. Castruccio had filed to try and upset her husband’s will. At the time, the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals concurred that no cause of action existed under Maryland law. However, the Court of Appeals stated that the action should be created, citing jurisprudence from other states – most notably North Carolina – and establishing a narrow area for it so that probate jurisdiction is not affected.

Unfortunately for Ms. Barclay, the Court of Appeals also decided that no viable claim for intentional interference with an inheritance existed at the time – the majority of relevant case law dealt with alleged interference that had occurred before the death of the testator, while any alleged bad acts by Mrs. Castruccio occurred after her husband’s passing. The court specified that in order to be tortious, any interference with an expected inheritance must have occurred to an ‘ongoing or prospective’ relationship – in other words, while the testator is still alive.

Contact A Maryland Estate Planning Attorney

While probate litigation can be time consuming and, yes, sometimes originates in bad faith, there are specifics that must be shown in order to truly constitute intentional interference with an inheritance. If you have questions or concerns about your own case, a knowledgeable Maryland estate & succession planning attorney may be able to help. Our firm of Henault & Sysko Chartered is ready and willing to try and assist you. Call our offices today at (410) 768-9300 to schedule a consultation.

Sources:

scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=3837746819849566902&q=probate+estate&hl=en&scisbd=2&as_sdt=4,146,194,195

courts.state.md.us/data/opinions/coa/2020/30a19.pdf

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