In Barclay v. Castruccio (No. 30, Sept.Term 2019) (June 30, 2020), the Maryland Court of Appeals announced that Maryland now recognizes a cause of action for the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance or gift. A majority of the Court also concluded that the gist of the action is the alleged tortfeasor’s interference with an ongoing or prospective “relationship” among principals, rather than a tortious attack on the gift or bequest itself. This distinction proved fatal to the claimant in Barclay, who convinced the Court to recognize the tort, but failed to allege facts sufficient to state an action for it.
Barclay was the residuary beneficiary of her employer’s estate. After the employer died, his widow filed seven lawsuits against the estate, resulting in 13 trips to Maryland’s appellate courts. The sole purpose of these actions, Barclay alleged, was to interfere with and deplete her expected inheritance by requiring the estate to pay massive amounts in legal fees. Barclay sued the widow alleging, inter alia, a claim for intentional interference with the inheritance.
The circuit court dismissed the claim, finding that there was no such cause of action in Maryland. The Court of Special Appeals agreed, as did the Court of Appeals, which then decided that it was time to recognize one.
The Court first noted that Maryland already recognizes a “related, umbrella tort—interference with contractual or economic relations.” Id. at 7. Quoting an 80-year-old North Carolina case, the Court agreed that “[i]f the plaintiff can recover against the defendant for the malicious and wrongful interference with the making of a contract, we see no good reason why he cannot recover for the malicious and wrongful interference with the making of a will.” Id. at 10–11 (citation omitted).
The court was, however, mindful of an “added complication” when it comes to cases involving wills— “the need to protect the jurisdiction of the probate court,” including its fundamental authority to determine the validity of a will. Id. at 12. The court was satisfied that a proper balance has been struck in Section 19 of the Restatement of Torts (Third), which it adopted as the governing standard for Maryland:
(1) A defendant is subject to liability for interference with an inheritance or gift if:
(a) the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift;
(b) the defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong;
(c) the defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy;
(d) the defendant’s conduct caused the expectancy to fail; and
(e) the plaintiff suffered injury as a result.
(2) A claim under this Section is not available to a plaintiff who had the right to seek a remedy for the same claim in a probate court.
The signatories to the concurring opinion would have stopped there, as they were convinced that Barclay’s claims for legal expenses for the widow’s allegedly baseless litigation were recoverable in probate under Md. Rule 6-141, which authorizes the orphans’ court to award fees and costs against one who prosecutes a claim in bad faith or without substantial justification. Concurring Slip Op. at 5-6. The element listed in paragraph (2), therefore, was lacking.
The majority took a different tack. It grafted onto the Restatement formulation a requirement that, “at the time of the alleged interference, there must be something to interfere with, i.e., a current or prospective relationship or contract.” Slip Op. at 16. The bad faith litigation complained of in this case occurred after the death of the testator, so “the crucial relationship” was gone by the time the widow engaged in the alleged misconduct. Barclay’s tort claim, therefore, failed, and “at best” she was left with a claim under Md. Rule 1-341, which, like Rule 6-141, authorizes an award of fees costs incurred defending claims made in bad faith. Slip Op. at 21.
The court expressed concern about allowing post-death litigation to qualify as the independent legal wrong sufficient to support the tort claim, as to do so might discourage legitimate challenges to a will. Slip Op. at 23. In time, it will have to reconcile this conclusion with its rendition of wrongful conduct that might support a claim for interference with other economic relations—“common law torts and ‘violence or intimidation, defamation, injurious falsehood or other fraud, violation of criminal law, and the institution or threat of groundless civil suits or criminal prosecutions in bad faith.’” Id. at 7. It will no doubt get that chance in the future now that the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance is available to Maryland plaintiffs.