Friday morning, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court held that in most cases, a tort claim for intentional interference with testamentary expectancy is not subject to the six-month statute of limitations on will contests. Reversing Division Three of the First District, the Court held in Bjork v. O'Meara that so long as the plaintiff isn't passing up a concrete, non-speculative claim on the estate, a tort claim against the beneficiary who allegedly interfered can be brought within five years. Our in-depth review of the facts and lower court rulings in Bjork is here. Our pre-argument preview is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Bjork began in the spring of 2005, when the elderly decedent allegedly told the plaintiff that he owned two bank accounts: his checking account, worth about $800,000, and a second account which was not used for expenses and contained about $500,000. Plaintiff alleged that the decedent told her he wanted to name her the pay-on-death beneficiary of the account. The decedent's personal banker confirmed this to plaintiff twice, and later that year, sent her a Power of Attorney for the account, listing the plaintiff as the beneficiary. A few weeks later, the decedent signed a power of attorney in favor of the defendant, revoking all power previously given to plaintiff; two months after that, he executed a will containing a residuary clause leaving everything to the defendant and his wife. For the next few years, the plaintiff and the decedent stayed in touch. The decedent ultimately died in early 2009.
The plaintiff appeared in the decedent's estate proceeding, filing a petition for a citation to the trust company for recovery of property, asserting that she was the rightful owner of the bank account, and a petition for a citation for discovery of information. The trust company produced documents, but when the plaintiff petitioned for leave to depose the decedent's personal banker, the petition was denied. The plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider and clarify, and the Circuit Court held that it lacked the authority to order the deposition. With that, plaintiff's claim on the decedent's assets became entirely speculative. The estate was closed in the spring of 2010. When plaintiff filed a separate tort claim against the defendant six months later for intentional interference with testamentary expectancy, but the claim was dismissed as untimely under 755 ILCS 5/8-1, which provides that any petition "to contest the validity of the will" must be filed within six months of the will's admission to probate.
Writing for the Court, Justice Charles E. Freeman pointed out that a claim for intentional interference with testamentary expectancy was not a challenge to the validity of a will; it was a personal action against the individual tortfeasor. No one disputed that the plaintiff had filed her claim well within the five years allowed under 735 ILCS 5/13-205 for actions to recover possession of personal property or damages for its detention or conversion.
The Supreme Court had dealt with the collision between tort claims over expectancies and traditional will contests twice before. In Robinson v. First State Bank of Monticello, the Court held that the tort claim was not permitted when a will contest was possible and would have provided the claimant with adequate relief. Later in Estate of Ellis, the Court distinguished Robinson on the ground that the plaintiff in Ellis didn't know about its claim against the estate, which flowed from an earlier will, so it had no way to file a will contest.
Based on Robinson
the defendant argued that since the plaintiff not only knew about the probate proceeding, she intervened in it, her tort claim was barred. But mere knowledge wasn't enough, the Court held; once the probate court erroneously refused to order the deposition of the decedent's personal banker, the plaintiff was left with no evidence to support a claim against the estate. Since the plaintiff didn't have the summary citation procedure available to her as the legislature intended, the tort action could go forward. Plaintiff's action simply didn't implicate the concerns about the finality of estate proceedings which motivated Robinson
the Court found. The plaintiff wasn't contesting the will or making any claim against the decedent or the estate; she was seeking money damages from a third party.