Court Recognizes New Legal Claim for Unmarried Partners Intentionally Deprived of Expected Inheritance

(Santa Ana, CA, May 4, 2012)—Yesterday, the California Court of Appeal established an important new legal protection for unmarried partners who are wrongfully prevented from inheriting property from each other when one partner dies. The Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the surviving same-sex partner of a deceased Southern California man in a lawsuit alleging that the deceased partner’s sister had intentionally prevented him from signing a will that would have left a share of his property to the surviving partner. The two men were not married and were not registered domestic partners, but had been in a committed relationship for nearly ten years.

The surviving partner, Brent Beckwith, filed the suit against his deceased partner’s sister, Susan Dahl, after the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in a probate proceeding that Beckwith had no right to any share of his partner’s property because he had died without leaving a will and the couple were neither

married nor registered as domestic partners. California law allows registered same-sex partners to inherit property in the same way as spouses, but provides no inheritance rights to couples who have not registered as domestic partners if one of them dies without a will.

The probate court awarded the entire estate to Dahl, who was his closest living relative other than Beckwith. Beckwith then filed a lawsuit against Dahl in Orange County Superior Court, alleging that Dahl had interfered with his late partner’s plan to sign a will leaving half of his property to each of them.

Beckwith’s complaint alleged that while in the hospital, his partner had asked him to print a will that he had previously written on his computer and bring it to him to sign, but that Dahl had interfered with that plan, promising to contact a lawyer to set up a trust instead. Beckwith alleged that Dahl did not follow through on her offer to arrange a trust, and shortly thereafter his partner died without leaving either a will or a trust.

Beckwith asked the court to recognize a new legal claim for intentional interference with an expected inheritance—a claim recognized in a majority of states but not previously addressed by the California courts. The Orange County court dismissed Beckwith’s case, saying that it was up to the appellate courts to decide whether to recognize this claim.

The California Court of Appeal then took up the case and requested amicus curiae briefs from the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and other groups discussing whether California should recognize the new claim. NCLR filed a brief supporting Beckwith and asking the court to recognize the claim because of its special importance to unmarried lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples.

The appellate court agreed with NCLR’s position and ruled that “it is time to officially recognize this tort claim.” The decision cited the maxim that “for every wrong there is a remedy.” The court held that Beckwith could proceed on his claim that Dahl

defrauded him, and also sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether Beckwith could establish a claim for intentional interference with an expected inheritance.

“Committed couples deserve legal protections, whether or not they are married or in a registered domestic partnership,” said NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Christopher F. Stoll. “Unfortunately, many same-sex couples have family members who are hostile to their relationships, or become hostile to the surviving partner after one of them dies. Wills, trusts, advance healthcare directives, and powers of attorney remain the most secure protections for couples, and everyone should have them, whether or not they are married or registered as domestic partners. This decision creates important new protections for surviving partners in California who are unfairly prevented from inheriting property when there is no will.”

Representing NCLR on its amicus brief were Legal Director Shannon P. Minter and SeniorStaff Attorney Christopher F. Stoll, along with Trenton H. Norris and Jeremy M. McLaughlin of Arnold & Porter LLP. 

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.