Any time an attorney writes himself or one of his relatives into a client’s will, red flags should shoot up all over the place. If this same attorney is also cutting the testator’s family out of the will, the ethical and legal issues become so thick the attorney is almost guaranteeing future litigation over the will. That’s exactly what happened in a St. Petersburg, Florida, case, as reported in this newspaper story. Here are a few excerpts from that story:
The millionaire walked into the St. Petersburg law office. Harry Lieffers Jr., 76, looked over a five-page document and, with a few strokes of a pen, cut his two daughters and stepson out of his will. On that October day in 2003, Lieffers decided that his roughly $1.5-million estate would be divided equally among two people: His 43-year-old real estate agent and the agent’s 22-year-old girlfriend. “I wish to reward them for the kindness they have shown me,” the will said. The attorney who drafted the will was the girlfriend’s uncle. The document, filed after Lieffers’ death last month, is the latest point of contention in a two-year battle over Lieffers’ health and estate. Lieffers’ children say he was vulnerable because of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. They say his real estate agent, Gerard Growney, and the attorney, Alan Watson, took advantage of Lieffers. The family has filed a complaint against Watson with the Florida Bar and plan to contest the will. * * * * Lieffers’ children know a lengthy court battle may wipe out all of the funds, but they believe Lieffers would have wanted them to push forward. “If we ever needed Dad, he was there for us,” said daughter Reibel. “We will continue to be there for him, to preserve his last wishes now that he is gone.” (Emphasis added.)
Did Drafting Attorney Violate Florida Bar Ethics Rule? Based on the linked-to story, the answer appears to be NO. Rule Reg. Fla. Bar 4-1.8(c) prohibits an attorney from preparing an instrument giving the attorney or a person “related” to the attorney any substantial gift from a client, including a testamentary gift, unless the client is related to the proposed donee. An attorney’s niece or nephew is not considered “related” for purposes of this rule. The Florida Bar will have to grapple with this case, but the overriding question for all concerned should be “why get caught up in this mess to begin with?” Contested Guardianship Proceeding as Precursor to Probate Litigation One final note, if you read the linked-to story you’ll note this family drama started out as a contested guardianship proceeding, emphasizing once again the remarks I’ve made (see here and here) regarding how these types of proceedings usually end up being precursors to probate litigation. Perhaps if someone had sought discovery of Mr. Lieffers’ will as part of the contested guardianship proceedings the parties would have found out about his will’s controversial dispositive provisions before his death and worked out these issues while he was still around to comment. Source: Thanks to Heraldblog@gmail.com for brining this item to my attention!