This opinion discusses an issue which comes up often – to whom does the estate planner’s duty lie? The typical fact pattern of these cases is as follows. A lawyer represents a parent who has several children. Later the parent dies and the children claim that the will or trust was not consistent with the parent’s intentions.
The first line of defense in these cases was that the lawyer owed no duty to the children. After all he had an attorney-client relationship with the parent, not the children. To accept this defense means that no estate planner could ever be sued for legal malpractice by the beneficiaries. In recent years, courts have steadily rejected the privity argument.
The Paul v. Patton case is a classic example of this pattern. The lawyer drafted estate planning documents and admitted in a deposition that the documents do not reflect the intent of his client. The court’s discussion is lengthy and it is a departure from prior California cases. The court distinguished prior decisions on the ground that the plaintiffs were all named beneficiaries in the estate documents and, therefore, there was no risk that a random unnamed beneficiary was making a claim against the lawyer.
In sum, Paul v. Patton is another chapter in a slowly expanding area of the estate planning lawyer’s duty to the known beneficiaries of client’s will or trust.
Edward X. Clinton, Jr.