Estate of Albanese v. Lolio, 393 N.J. Super. 355 (App. Div. 2007).
NJ Underlying Probate Matter
Facts: The decedent was survived by three daughters, all beneficiaries under the decedent’s will. One of the beneficiaries, the executrix, retained the defendant attorney for the probate of the decedent’s estate. The executrix, allegedly upon the advice of the attorney and a financial planner, withdrew funds from the IRA and made equal distributions to the beneficiaries, resulting in a personal income tax burden on the beneficiaries of approximately $298,000 each. All the beneficiaries, including the testatrix, sued the attorney for malpractice claiming that the attorney never outlined options by which the testatrix could pay the estate taxes. The attorney, however, claimed that he advised the testatrix of other options for paying the taxes aside from using funds from the IRA. These conversation, however, were never documented in writing.
Issue: Does an attorney owe a duty to the individual beneficiaries to inform them of the personal tax implications of his advice?
Ruling: The court held that under the retainer agreement, the attorney represented the estate and its executrix, and was obligated to advise her with regard to post-mortem planning, including calculating tax needs. This requirement, however, did not apply to the remainder of the beneficiaries who likely had different, and possibly adverse, interests. As a result, the Court declined to extend the duty an attorney owes to third parties who are beneficiaries of an estate the lawyer represents, or to hold that the attorney has an obligation to consider and advise third-party beneficiaries of the tax consequences of a bequest or legacy.
Lesson: Attorneys have an obligation to define the scope of their representation clearly and unambiguously. Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers §14 comment f states that “[i]n trusts and estates practice a lawyer may have to clarify with those involved whether a trust, a trustee, its beneficiaries or groupings of some or all of them are clients and similarly whether the client is an executor, an estate, or its beneficiaries.” The attorney will bear liability for the beneficiaries that fall under the scope of his representation as it is set forth in his retainer agreement.