Articles Posted in Estate Planning Malpractice

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Meisler was a “potential” beneficiary. She argued that the lawyer who drafted the estate planning documents committed legal malpractice because he did not include certain language in the estate planning documents. In some states a beneficiary can sue the lawyer who drafted estate planning documents. Ohio rejects this concept and holds that only a party in privity with the lawyer (usually the person who retained the lawyer) can file such a lawsuit. The problem is that the person who is in privity with the lawyer is usually deceased. In such cases, privity provides a complete defense to malpractice claims. The Ohio court notes that the executor of an estate might have standing to assert an error that diminished the value of the entire estate. However, the executor would not have standing to sue for an error that impacted the claim of one beneficiary.

The standing doctrine of the Ohio cases is, in my view, too narrow and is unfair to many estate beneficiaries. Obviously, this is an issue that is controversial.

Source: MEISLER v. Weinberg, 2017 Ohio 1563 – Ohio: Court of Appeals, 8th Appellate Dist. 2017 – Google Scholar

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This opinion arises in an unusual procedural setting – plaintiff sought summary judgment on liability. Plaintiff claimed that an estate planning attorney erred in drafting a Will. The documents are quoted here:

On August 19, 2006, Elizabeth executed a revised Last Will and Testament presented to her by Defendants. (Id. at ¶¶ 14-16.) For the purposes of this motion, there are three relevant sections to the Last Will and Testament. Section One reads, in pertinent part:

I give, devise and bequeath all of my property of whatever nature, both real and personal, personal effects, household goods, automobiles, and all other items of goods and chattels to my children who survive me in equal shares of substantially equal value, per stirpes and not per capita.

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This is another chapter in the long-running battle between beneficiaries of estates and estate planning attorneys. For much of the 19th century if a lawyer made an error in the drafting of an estate planning document, the intended beneficiary could not sue for legal malpractice because the intended beneficiary was not “in privity” with the lawyer. The words “in privity” meant that the intended beneficiary did not have a direct attorney-client relationship with the lawyer. (Of course, in most estate planning matters, the only person with an attorney-client relationship is deceased by the time the error is discovered).

The privity rule was extremely beneficial to attorneys because it meant that they could rarely be sued for legal malpractice. In recent years, courts have chipped away at the privity rule. The courts have acted from the obvious concern that the lawyer who makes a mistake depriving a beneficiary of an inheritance should not be able to hide behind a technicality to escape liability.

In this case, the plaintiff was the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or RSPCA. RSPCA alleged that there was an error in the drafting of a will and the error caused it to lose an expected inheritance of real property.