CT: Underlying estate distribution matter
Facts: Prior to his death, the client had hired the lawyer to make arrangements for the distribution of his estate. The client was clear that he wished for his estate not to go through probate, so the lawyer suggested they set up a trust. The lawyer and client had a meeting planned for March 19, 1983 to finish execution of the will. On March 17, the lawyer found out that the client had a heart attack and was in intensive care. The lawyer did not proceed to complete the documents. On March 18, the lawyer was instructed to bring the trust instruments to the hospital. When the lawyer finally arrived at the hospital, she was not permitted to see the client because of his weakening condition. The client died shortly after without signing the trust documents. The intended beneficiaries of the client’s estate sued the lawyer on grounds that she had negligently delayed the completion of the will by either or: (1) not finishing the trust documents and presenting them to the client for signature on March 17, (2) not hastily arriving to the hospital on March 18 with the hand-written documents or a simple will for the client to sign immediately.
Issue: Is a lawyer liable to the intended beneficiaries of a will for negligent delay in completing and delivering estate planning documents for signing by the a client?
Ruling: No. “Imposing liability to the intended beneficiaries does not comport with the lawyer’s duty of undivided loyalty to the client.” The lawyer’s devotion remains entirely with the interests of the client, not any other third parties with whom the lawyer is not in privity. The lawyer’s obligation to the client would be undermined if the lawyer had to be concerned that whatever actions he or she took in the interest of their client might lead to a legal malpractice suit from a third party.
Lesson: Determination of a lawyer’s liability to those they are not in privity with is a question of public policy. The Court is concerned that imposition of liability to third parties could create a conflict of interest that would disrupt the lawyer’s duty of loyalty to the client. In specific, the Court reasoned “these potential conflicts of interest are especially significant in the context of the final disposition of a client’s estate, where the testator’s testamentary capacity and the absence of undue influence are often central issues.”