Can You Be Sued in a Civil Suit for Future Inheritance?

Grandpa may leave you memories and money.
Grandpa may leave you memories and money. (Image: Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

An inheritance can give you money and a civil lawsuit can take it away. An inheritance transfers property from a deceased person. The transfer gives the property or money to the legal heir or person named in the will. Courts are open so that anyone can sue, but judges dismiss lawsuits for technical or legal reasons and the plaintiff gets nothing. Negligence, contract or a non-criminal act may be enough for filing a lawsuit, but the plaintiff must get a judgment against you before he can collect any money.

Cause of Action

A plaintiff must have a cause of action, or legal basis for the lawsuit. You must be negligent, breach a contract, or act or fail to act to give the plaintiff a basis for a lawsuit against you. Receiving a future inheritance does not create a civil cause of action. Some states have “alienation of affection” laws that might create a cause of action in the form of a will contest. If you coerced the person in the signing of the will or determining your inheritance, you could face a civil suit by someone with standing to sue.

Standing to Sue

The plaintiff or person who files the lawsuit must have standing to sue, or a connection to the harm. A judge will dismiss a civil lawsuit if the plaintiff can’t prove harm from the actions of the defendant or if the plaintiff can't connect the harm to the defendant’s conduct. Your inheritance must adversely affect the plaintiff. For example, if you get more of an inheritance and the plaintiff receives less because of your actions, the person harmed may contest the will.

Judgment Prior to Inheritance

A plaintiff must win the case against you to collect any money. The court enters a judgment in the record setting out the terms. A money judgment against you for negligence or contract violation is enforceable under state law. States vary in the amount of time allowed to enforce the judgment. Some states allow up to 10 years to enforce the judgment with a renewal of 10 more years. Once you pass the time limit, the judgment is “time-barred” and the plaintiff can’t collect the money if you later receive an inheritance.

Satisfaction of Judgment

Courts can force you to satisfy a judgment by placing a lien on your property or garnishing your wages if you have a job. A garnishment takes a percentage of your wages each pay period and pays the money to satisfy the judgment. A lien prevents you from selling your property without first paying the judgment. The judgment accumulates interest until paid, so the total owed increases over time.

A plaintiff who pursues a civil action to judgment will attempt to collect on the judgment. If you do not pay the judgment by the time you receive an inheritance, and if enforcement of the judgment is not time-barred, the plaintiff may file a lien on real property you inherit. If your inheritance is in another form, the plaintiff may enforce the judgment according to state law.

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