Monday, December 20, 2010

Duty to the beneficiary of a will?

The Legal Ethics Forum recently reported on a case out of the California Court of Appeal called Hall v. Kalfayan, in which the court decided that "a prospective beneficiary of a will cannot maintain a cause of action for legal malpractice against the attorney who drafted the will but did not have it executed before the death of the testator."

According to the court, "[t]he essence of the claim in the case. . . is that [the attorney] failed to complete the new estate plan for Ms. Turner [the client] and have it executed on her behalf by her conservator before her death, thereby depriving Hall [the plaintiff] of his share of her estate."

The court based its ruling on the fact that "in the absence of an executed (and in this instance, approved) testamentary document naming Hall as a beneficiary, Hall is only a potential beneficiary."

But isn't this a bit of an egg/chicken problem? The plaintiff can't have a cause of action because he is not a beneficiary, but the reason he is not a beneficiary is, arguably, the attorney's negligence. If the lawyer had not been negligent, he would have been a beneficiary...

The court seems to realize this problem and makes a point of stating that the client "had not expressed a desire to have a new will prepared and had only limited conversation with [the lawyer] about the disposition of her estate."

If that is the case, I can understand the court's reasoning. After all, lots of people can speculate that they would have been beneficiaries had the client drafted a will if the client hadn't made up her mind yet. I have no problem with the court's conclusion in a case like that.

But I think it would be wrong to conclude that even if the client had expressed her desire to the lawyer, there is no duty to the beneficiary until the lawyer does the work.

Let's assume that the client clearly expresses to the lawyer his desire to prepare a will in which a certain person would be a beneficiary and it is clear that without the will the person would recover less or nothing at all. Let's also assume that it is clear the will must be prepared quickly because the client is in poor health. Then the lawyer is negligent in doing the work, or waiting too long or whatever. Saying that the beneficiary does not have a cause of action because the will was never prepared allows the negligent lawyer to avoid any consequences for the negligence and results in an injury to the beneficiary. I don't see why not recognize a cause of action under those circumstances. It would serve the two main goals of tort law: providing incentives for avoiding negligent conduct and providing compensation to victims of negligent conduct.

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