FEBRUARY 12, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 33
Leland and Christine Belcher were married for forty years, but never had any children. After Leland died, Christine Belcher met and married David Yates. Under the law of Alabama (where the Yates’ lived), David Yates would inherit all of Christine Belcher Yates’ estate if she died before him—unless she signed a will making some other disposition.
Christine Yates tried to do just that. She retained lawyer Thomas Nettles to prepare a new will, and met with him over the course of several months to discuss what the will should provide. When she was admitted to the hospital for heart problems in 1997 she contacted her lawyer and asked him to bring the will to her for signing.
Mr. Nettles visited Mrs. Yates in the hospital, and even brought along her accountant David Burton. The three discussed the final language of her will, and she instructed her lawyer to make one final round of changes. He and the accountant left Mrs. Yates hospital room intending to do just that.
The next day lawyer Nettles had a telephone conversation with David Yates. Mrs. Yates’ husband angrily told Mr. Nettles that his attempts to secure Mrs. Yates’ signature on a new will were not appreciated. After objecting to the hospital visit by Mrs. Yates’ attorney and accountant, Mr. Yates hung up on Mr. Nettles.
Based on that angry telephone call the lawyer did not pursue contact with his client. While she could have contacted him to inquire when he would be bringing the will back for her signature, she apparently did not. She died four days later without having signed her new will, and David Yates inherited her entire estate.
Mr. Yates himself died a short time after his wife’s death. As a result of Mrs. Yates’ failure to sign a final will her estate passed to her husband’s heirs rather than her intended beneficiaries.
Mrs. Yates’ niece and nephew, as two of the persons who would have received her estate had the will been signed, brought a lawsuit against her husband’s estate. They alleged that Mr. Yates had intentionally interfered with their expected inheritance from Mrs. Yates.
Only a few states recognize “intentional interference with an expectancy.” In fact, Alabama’s legal history includes a case in which the state’s Supreme Court refused to allow the claim. Mrs. Yates’ case persuaded the court—by a 5-2 vote—to change its mind and permit her heirs to try to prove their case at trial. Batchelor v. Yates, January 5, 2001.
Usually the tort claim of “intentional interference with an expectancy” looks very much like a will contest, and so state courts have been slow to approve the redundant cause of action. In Mrs. Yates’ case there was no will contest possible—it was the very lack of a will that gave rise to her heirs’ claim.
[Footnote: On May 18, 2001, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed itself. Without explaining why, the Court granted a rehearing, withdrew its earlier opinion and ended the heirs’ legal claim. That may not mean that the claim of intentional interference with an expectancy is dead in Alabama, but this case no longer establishes precedent for the concept.]