CA Underlying probate matters
Facts: A special administrator in probate court retained the Defendants Taylor and Faust to provide assistance in tax matters relating to the execution of a will. Without authorization, the administrator borrowed approximately $115,000 from the estate for personal reasons. After some time, the administrator sought assistance from Defendant Faust. Faust later informed the administrator that he could no longer provide representation. Representation was then assumed by attorney McGovern. An IRS form was not filed by McGovern, which would have extended for three years the estate’s rights to claim a tax refund for administrative expenses related to the will contest. A malpractice action was initiated against Faust and McGovern, to which both Defendants asserted affirmative defenses that that they owed no duty as attorneys to plaintiff, with whom they did not stand in privity of contract, and that the statute of limitations barred plaintiff’s claims. The Court of Appeals agreed, as did the trial court, that the Plaintiffs lacked standing to sue the defendants.
Issue: May the successor fiduciary of an estate in probate assert a professional negligence claim against attorneys retained by a predecessor fiduciary to provide tax assistance for the benefit of the estate?
Ruling: Yes. The Supreme Court held that:
1) “[the probate] code’s relevant provisions strongly support the inference that a successor fiduciary does have standing to sue an attorney retained by a predecessor fiduciary to give tax advice for the benefit of the estate”;
2) “While privity of contract may not exist, the successor has the same powers and duties as the predecessor, including the power to sue”; and
3) the successor’s fiduciary must have standing to sue the predecessor’s attorney for malpractice if the successor is to have standing to sue for the same.
Lesson: Even if privity of contract does not exist, if an attorney breaches a duty to a predecessor, a successor fiduciary may sue the attorney for malpractice.