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Massachusetts Appellate Decision Upholds Verdict Finding Interference with Inheritance and Unjust Enrichment

The Commonwealth’s Appeals Court recently released an opinion looking at whether or not a niece appointed as attorney-in-fact interfered with an inheritance by not releasing funds held in a joint account from the sale of a house that would have been distributed as part of the estate. In Sarro vs. Ciancarelli (14-P-230), the testator’s health began to diminish in the 1980s, and her niece began providing care and assistance with financial matters. frosty neighborhoodDuring this time period, the niece opened a joint account to help pay for her aunt’s living expenses. This account was in both of their names and became a focal point of this appeal.

After the niece was made attorney-in-fact, she sold a residence that was a part of the estate to her own son and his girlfriend for $135,000. This residence had previously been conveyed to her brothers, with the testator retaining a life estate, but was eventually restored to the testator after the niece advised her uncles that the transfer to their sister was necessary for Medicare purposes. The proceeds of the sale were placed in the joint account, and some were used for the funeral and final expenses of the testator. $90,000 was left in the account but was retained by the niece.

The testator’s brothers eventually filed a complaint against the niece with several allegations, including interference with inheritance and unjust enrichment. The case went to a jury trial. During deliberations, the jury asked a question about whether the funds from the sale of the house would have gone to the testator’s estate. The judge answered that it would depend on the intentions of those on the account and the terms under which the account was opened. The jury found the niece liable for interference with inheritance and unjust enrichment, awarding the testator’s brothers $45,000 each.

The niece appealed, arguing that it was improper to answer the jury’s question about the joint account. The appellate court disagreed with the niece, pointing out that she had notice through the pleadings about the contested residence, which would logically include the joint account that held the proceeds of the sale. The appellate court felt answering the question was proper and did not introduce any new theories of liability. The Appeals Court also felt that the niece was not entitled to a directed verdict or judgment n.o.v. Under Massachusetts case law, as long as there is enough evidence from which a reasonable inference could be drawn, the verdict stands. The appellate court felt there was enough evidence in this case to infer the niece intentionally interfered with the estate, since she never told the testator she sold her home and even referred to the home to the testator as belonging to her brothers on the day before her death. The jury verdict was affirmed.

The Massachusetts estate planning attorneys at Karsner & Meehan understand the difficult and important choices that come with creating an estate. Our lawyers can help you ask the right questions when planning your estate to help ensure an effective distribution. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 508.822.6600.

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