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NJ: Lawyers' Duty to Third Parties (circa 1988)

Rathblott v. Levin, 697 F. Supp. 817 (D.N.J. 1988) 

NJ: Underlying dispute over a will

 Student Contributor: Laura Binski

Facts: Albert Rathblott (the client) died on October 19, 1979. He was survived by his two adult children and his third wife, Elizabeth. Rathblott created his first will in 1963, and in 1973 added a bequest of $10,000 to Elizabeth. In the last week of his life, Rathblott made several changes to his will with the help of his lawyer, Jay Levin. Mr. Rathblott’s final will (executed two days before his death) was challenged by his children  on the grounds that Rathblott lacked testamentary capacity and free will in the last days of his life when the will was executed. His wife Elizabeth, the beneficiary of the will, now sues Mr. Levin for negligence. Elizabeth asserts that although she was successfully granted the $10,000 bequeath, she has lost significant amounts of money defending the contest of the will.  In response, the lawyer moved for the case to be dismissed, saying that he owed no duty to the Elizabeth because there was no privity between them.

 Issue: Should a lawyer be able to use a lack of privity defense when a beneficiary who did not lose her rights under the will but did lose money defending the will sues him for negligence in the drafting of the will?

Ruling: No. Under New Jersey law, a lawyer may be held liable to the beneficiary of a will (even when there is a lack of privity between the two) for negligent drafting when it caused the beneficiary to spend considerable money defending the contest of the will. The Court recognized that in this case, there was a possibility of privity through reliance, which would need to be determined in a trial. As a result, the lawyer’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

Lesson: There is no real difference between a person who loses her rights to half of her estate and a person who loses half her estate defending her rights. A lawyer must take all reasonable measures to avoid the risk of causing economic harm to any person he has a reason to know may suffer as a result of his actions.

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Posted in: New Jersey, Privity, Wills Trusts & Estates