Whether you are the heir of the probate estate or the Personal Representative, knowing the lawyer’s role is one of the first steps you should take at the beginning of the probate process.
One of the biggest sources of conflict in probating the estate is understanding the role of the lawyer hired by the Personal Representative of a probate estate. Many Personal Representatives do not understand the probate process and leave the tasks up to the lawyer. The heirs of the estate may hear only from the lawyer or may hear the Personal Representative say, “This is what the lawyer says we have to do.” This often raises the question, does the lawyer owe a fiduciary duty to the heirs of the estate since the Personal Representative owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs?
The answer to that question depends on the state in which the estate is being probated. To be clear, this question is specifically about whether a lawyer owes the heirs of a probate estate a fiduciary duty, and not whether a lawyer owes a fiduciary duty in other contexts, such as to the beneficiaries of a trust when hired by a trustee, or a ward when hired by a guardian or conservator. The answer varies depending on each different circumstance.
Also, before answering the question, it is helpful to have an idea of some common activities created by fiduciary duties in the context of probating an estate:
Most states, however, take the position that the lawyer does not owe a fiduciary duty to the estate heirs. These states view the fiduciary duty owed by the Personal Representative to the heirs as unique from the fiduciary duty owed by the lawyer to the Personal Representative. Also, these states want to maintain the Personal Representative’s ability to have protected communication with the attorney.
There is a small third set of states, including California, New Mexico, and Illinois, that apply a balancing test to determine who was the actual intended beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship, the Personal Representative or the heirs? Each state has established their own test criteria, but some common questions the courts ask include: who was the intended beneficiary of the attorney’s services, the Personal Representative or the heirs; what was the foreseeability of the harm to the heirs as a result of the malpractice; and what was the proximity of the misconduct and the damage to the heirs?
If you are the Personal Representative hiring the attorney, ask what the law is. If you are an heir of the estate, the lawyer should give you some guidance. If the probate estate is in one of the majority states, the first letter from the attorney should start with a sentence that reads, “I have been retained by Mr. Smith, Personal Representative of the Estate of Ms. Smith. It is important that you understand I do not represent you.” Otherwise, call and ask.
Everyone’s goal should be for the settling of the probate estate to go smoothly. Understanding the lawyer’s role will go a long way towards achieving that goal.
If you have questions or would like to discuss your personal situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Please contact our office or give us a call at 1 (941) 441-9193.
The information on this website is for education purposes only and is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. An attorney consultation is necessary for you to receive advice regarding your particular situation.