The Case of the Burning Mobile Home & Tortious Interference With Prospective Inheritance

From time to time we publish summaries of interesting trust and estate cases:

Butcher v. McClain, Oregon Court of Appeals, July 13, 2011

Mom and Dad executed wills leaving the farm to their adult son and other property to their adult twin daughters (defendants in the case).   After Dad died, the son married and moved with his wife and five children (collectively the plaintiffs in this case) into a mobile home placed on the farm.  Mom then executed a new will which directed the farm to go to her son and the plaintiffs.

The son died in a 2005 auto accident. Shortly after, the defendants began to “harass” the plaintiffs, and prevented them from seeing Mom. A few months later Mom had a stroke. The defendants got a power of attorney for Mom, obtained a default judgment evicting plaintiffs from the farm, and burned down the mobile home. Unbenownst to plaintiffs, Mom executed new legal documents, including a new will, before she died.

Plaintiffs filed suit with several claims, but the trial court granted, without discussion, defendants’ motion to dismiss all claims. This included barring the tortious interference claims due to filing outside of the two-year statute of limitations in Oregon. 

The Court of Appeals separated plaintiffs’ interference claim into two types: defendants interfered by causing Mom to (1) evict plaintiffs from the farm; and (2) disinherit plaintiffs in the June 2, 2005 will. On the first type of interference, the court found that the claim accrued on the date of the eviction, which was more than two years prior to plaintiffs’ filing of the claim and thus correctly barred by the statute of limitations. 

The court disagreed, however, with the trial court’s determination that the second interference accrued on the date the last will was executed, ruling “although the alleged interference occurred when defendants caused [Mom] to execute a will disinheriting [the plaintiffs], plaintiffs were not damaged by that disinheritance until [Mom’s] death, when they lost their expected inheritance” and thus the claim was timely filed within the two-year statute of limitations."

This is a fair result – otherwise Bad Actors would escape legal consequences for tortious interference with prospective inheritance if the will does not come to light within two years of their misdeeds.