When Can Heirs of an Estate Sue Lawyers for Malpractice?
“INTENDED BENEFICIARIES” OF A LAWYER’S SERVICES MAY HAVE STANDING TO BRING MALPRACTICE CLAIMS.
In California, the existence of an attorney-client relationship is generally required in order to bring a malpractice claim against a lawyer. This means that in most cases, non-clients cannot sue a lawyer for malpractice.
However, California recognizes an exception to this rule for “intended beneficiaries” of a lawyer’s services, and although a court may still refuse to impose liability, intended beneficiaries of a lawyer’s legal representation may be enough to give a non-client standing to bring a malpractice claim.
One measurement of whether or not a person is an “intended beneficiary” of a lawyer’s services is whether or not the lawyer’s client intended for those people to benefit from the lawyer’s professional expertise.
BENEFICIARIES OF A WILL OR TRUST ARE OFTEN “INTENDED BENEFICIARIES” OF THE ESTATE PLANNING ATTORNEY’S SERVICES.
When a client hires a lawyer to draft a will, or a trust, and intends that the will or trust provide a benefit to certain named persons (often commonly known as “heirs” but actually called “beneficiaries” under the law), those persons are “intended beneficiaries” of the lawyer’s services. If the lawyer commits malpractice while drafting the will or trust, and as a result the named beneficiaries are injured, the beneficiaries generally do have standing to bring a malpractice claim against the lawyer who prepared the will or trust–even though they were not the lawyer’s clients.
However, estate planning attorneys’ legal malpractice liability to non-client beneficiary plaintiffs is generally limited to legal defects in the way the will or trust was drafted that prevent the document from carrying out the intent of the testator (the client on whose behalf the will was drafted) or settlor (in the case of a trust).
Also, the attorney has no liability or obligation to ensure that the client signs a will or trust. If the client fails to sign the documents, and the will or trust is thereafter ruled ineffective because of the lack of signature, that failure does not make the lawyer who drafted the will or trust guilty of (or liable for) malpractice. Lawyers owe no duty at all to beneficiaries of a will or trust that was never signed. This is true, in part, because lawyers are not supposed to pressure or force a client into signing any legal document. Holding them liable for the client’s failure to sign could result in lawyers improperly pressuring clients to sign legal documents–and as between the two situations, public policy holds that pressuring clients to sign a document is the greater harm.
Estate planning lawyers also have no obligation to second-guess a client’s intentions with regard to the provisions of a will or trust. The lawyer has an obligation to faithfully draft a will or trust that complies with the client’s stated wishes, as expressed to the lawyer. The lawyer does not have any obligation–to the client or to any beneficiary–to try and persuade the client to change his or her intentions or to dispose of his or her property in an alternative way.
After a client dies, the beneficiaries of the former client’s estate (or trust) do not have an attorney-client relationship with the attorney who represents the executor, personal representative, or trustee in settling and administering the estate. However, if the attorney engages in malpractice under circumstances where the beneficiaries’ interests in the estate (or trust) are foreseeably and negatively impacted, causing harm, the beneficiaries may have standing to sue the attorney in a malpractice action. Even here, though, liability depends on an evaluation of numerous factors, most of which are heavily dependent on the facts and circumstances of the specific case at issue.
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Malpractice (professional negligence) claims are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney who represented you, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your personal rights and claims.