CT: Underlying estate matter
Facts: Five days before her death, the client called her friend and lawyer, who was licensed to practice in New York, to visit her in Connecticut. The lawyer and client were not relatives. The client insisted that the lawyer draft her a new will to replace the one she had executed in 1962. The lawyer was reluctant, but eventually agreed to draft a handwritten will. The client specified that her estate be divided equally between the lawyer and the client’s handyman. The will did not make any provisions for residual beneficiaries. After the client died, the 1962 will and the handwritten will were submitted to Probate. The heirs at law tried to prevent the handwritten will from being admitted on the basis that the lawyer’s drafting of a will that would give her inheritance constituted the unauthorized practice of law, violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, and was contrary to public policy. The handwritten will was admitted, and the heirs at law appealed unsuccessfully. The court now considers the case to determine if the lawyer’s actions violate public policy.
Issue: Should there be a forfeiture of the bequest to a lawyer who drafted a will on the basis of public policy?
Ruling: No. The law governing descent and distribution is purely statutory, but the legislature has carved out exceptions to these statutes to deprive a supposedly rightful heir, falling within the ambit of those exceptions, of an otherwise unlawful inheritance. There is no statute barring a lawyer who drafted the will from inheriting by the will she drafted. Although the court finds that this lack of statutory exception is ill advised in terms of public policy, there is no bar against the lawyer in this case from inheriting under the client’s estate because the statutory provisions do not prohibit it.
Lesson: The court makes a point that this appeal considers only public policy issues, not violations of the Professional Rules of Conduct. When it comes to matters of public policy, the court will defer to the legislature and take on the view that if the legislature had intended an exception from the statutes, it would have said so. Thus, the court will not “create” an exception to conform to with the judge’s conception of right and wrong.