Does the Probate Attorney Represent the Personal Representative or the Estate Heirs?
Whether you are the Personal Representative or an heir of the probate estate, knowing the role of a probate attorney 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 who the probate attorney hired by the Personal Representative of a probate estate represents.
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 probate attorney, or may hear the Personal Representative say, “This is what the lawyer says we have to do.” This often raises the question, does the probate attorney owe a fiduciary duty to the heirs of the estate since the Personal Representative owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs?
So, who does the Probate Attorney really represent?
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:
- Duty to communicate: a duty to notify the beneficiaries the estate exists, identify the Personal Representative, provide a copy of the inventory, provide copies of court filings, generally explain documents that require a beneficiary’s signature, etc. This duty to communicate is not the same thing as an attorney-client relationship, which means there is no attorney-client privilege and the attorney cannot give legal advice.
- Duty to account: provide regular estate accountings, which includes explaining funds paid out of estate accounts for expenses.
- Duty to treat all beneficiaries equal: distribute estate funds at the same time, if a question arises as to how something in the Will is to be interpreted the attorney cannot interpret it, the court must interpret it.
Turning back to the question, whether the probate attorney owes a fiduciary duty the heirs of the estate depends on the state in which the estate is being probated. Only a few states require the lawyer to meet the same fiduciary duty to the estate heirs as the Personal Representative. These states believe that since the Personal Representative owes a fiduciary duty to the heirs and the lawyer owes a fiduciary duty to the Personal Representative, the duty flows from the Personal Representative to the lawyer.
Most states, (including Maryland and the District of Columbia) however, take the position that the probate 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.
McDonald Law Firm is here to help.
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, we are available to have a consultation with you via telephone or via video conferencing if you prefer. So, call Andre O. McDonald, a knowledgeable Howard County, Montgomery County and District of Columbia estate planning, special-needs planning, veterans pension planning and Medicaid planning attorney at (443) 741-1088 or (301) 941-7809 to schedule a consultation today!
DISCLAIMER: THE INFORMATION POSTED ON THIS BLOG IS INTENDED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT INTENDED TO CONVEY LEGAL OR TAX ADVICE.