Consolidated Matters: Hanna v. Williams, et. al. & Berkowtiz, et. al. v. Williams, et. al.

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By, Glynis Ritchie, Esq. of Day Pitney LLP 

The conduct of two estate planning attorneys, in addition to a financial advisor, are under scrutiny in the consolidated matters, Hanna v. Williams, et. al., Superior Court No. 1684CV 0722 BLS 1 and Berkowtiz, et. al. v. Williams, et. al., Superior Court No. 1684CV 0724 BLS 1.  Both matters involve the same estate planning attorneys and financial advisor defendants.  In its recent memorandum and order, the Superior Court ruled on the defendants’ motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim for (i) tortious interference with an expectancy (with respect to an inheritance); (ii) violations of G.L. c. 93A, § 9; and (iii) civil conspiracy, among other claims.  The Court also addressed its jurisdiction over these probate-related matters.

The decision sets out a variety of colorful facts, alleged in the plaintiffs’ complaints and outlined in detail by the Court, calling into question the defendants’ conduct. The matters concern the execution of an estate plan by an 91-year-old client, then hospitalized, immediately prior to her death in 2013.  The 2013 estate plan consisted of a will and trust, the terms of which differed significantly from the decedent’s prior will, executed in 1961.  According to facts alleged, the new documents included provisions leaving nearly $2 million dollars to the decedent’s financial advisor; the drafting attorneys’ firm was named as trustee for resulting long-term family trusts (despite the two attorneys not having met the client prior to the signing conference). According to the plaintiffs, the attorneys and financial advisor were the only individuals present at the deathbed signing conference, and, at the time, the decedent was heavily medicated.  Upon returning to their firm, the attorneys requested an administrative assistant notarize the decedent’s signature, despite the assistant not having been present at the signing conference.  The decedent died six days after the new documents were executed; following her death, the would-be beneficiaries of the 1961 will raised alarm.

A petition for probate of the 2013 will was then filed in the Essex County Probate and Family Court.  In the following months and years, extensive litigation took place regarding the validity of the 1961 and 2013 wills.  The parties of the probate court matter eventually entered into a Compromise Agreement approved by the probate court. Pursuant to that Agreement, the beneficiaries under the 1961 will received a percentage of what they would have been entitled to under the 1961 estate plan.  The Agreement did not establish the validity of either will, but it did provide that legal fees (then totaling approximately $1,240,000) be paid by the Estate.  The would-be beneficiaries of the 1961 will, and the personal representative of the decedent’s Estate, then brought actions in Superior Court for recovery of monetary damages and legal fees.

In addressing the question of jurisdiction, the Superior Court analyzed the standard for making a claim for tortious interference with an expectancy.  The tort, which is recognized in Massachusetts, requires proof that “but for” the interference, a plaintiff would have received something (for example, additional inheritance).  A plaintiff need not prove that a particular will is invalid, but merely that the procuring of the will in question was a tortious act.  Furthermore, there may be recovery notwithstanding a prior will admitted to probate.

Defendants argued that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to hear such a claim because the claim was, at its heart, a will contest; will contests, the defendants furthered, are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the probate court. The Court disagreed.  It clarified that, despite defendants’ argument, this is not a will contest, but a separate tort claim.  The probate court does not have jurisdiction to decide such actions for money damages.  As such, if the Superior Court also lacked jurisdiction to hear such a matter, the plaintiffs would have no adequate remedy.  On this basis, the Court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Court then held that the plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for intentional interference.  In setting aside defendants’ argument that they knew nothing of the 1961 will (and therefore could not have intentionally denied anyone an expectancy), the Court clarified that such a claim requires only that the defendants intentionally interfere with an expectancy, not that they knew the scope or details of the expectancy in question.  A valid claim is established where there was a reasonable likelihood of expectancy, and defendants’ conduct caused the persons affected to settle a lawsuit for less than what those individuals would otherwise have received.  The facts here, the Court found, are sufficient to sustain such a claim.

The Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the would-be beneficiaries’ claim of professional negligence (because the defendants owed no duty of care to the would-be heirs) but denied their motion with respect to the alleged violations of G.L. c. 93A, § 9 and civil conspiracy, among others.  In doing so, the court cleared the way for this already extensively litigated matter to continue on its path toward an ultimate resolution.