Morrison v. West, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 1135659 (Fla. 4th DCA Apr 18, 2007)

The linked-to case is a good example of why estate funds MUST remain subject to court control until all reasonably foreseeable debts are paid — including attorney’s fees.  Once estate funds are distributed no one should be misled by false expectations about the power of lawyers or even the courts to get those funds back.  The old saying we learned as children that "possession is nine-tenths of the law" is all too true when it comes to estate funds.

In the linked-to case client, Ms. Carla Morrison, hired North Carolina attorney William West to represent her in litigation against her husband’s multi-million dollar estate.  He did so and worked out a settlement agreement that included a $1 million pay out to Morrison.  Morrison then fired West and hired attorney Gary Woodfield to represent her.  At a hearing to approve the settlement agreement Mr. Woodfield represented to the court that his client had agreed to retain the $1 million payment in his firm’s trust account until a fee dispute with West was worked out.

COURT: [Morrison] agrees that it goes to your trust account until the fee arrangements are resolved?

WOODFIELD: She does. I have discussed that with her. She is in agreement with that, Mr. West is in agreement with that, and Mr. Pressly is in agreement with that.

And hopefully we will be able to amicably resolve the matter and that will be the end of it.

The trial court approved the settlement and executed the final judgment on January 20, 2005. Neither the final judgment nor the settlement agreement referred to the disbursement of the $1 million to West.

For reasons unexplained in the linked-to opinion, the funds left Mr. Woodfield’s trust account the very next month – and have yet to be returned despite a standing court order directing client to give the money back.

In February 2005, West learned that Woodfield released the $1 million in the Edwards & Angell trust account to Morrison. On June 30, 2005, West filed a motion to modify the final judgment and requested that Morrison be ordered to redeposit the $1 million into the court registry pending further proceedings. On February 21, 2006, the trial court held a hearing on West’s motion to modify the final judgment. West, Woodfield, and Morrison testified at the hearing.  The trial court ruled:

And having observed the witness testimony today I find that Carla Morrison did in fact authorize Mr. Woodfield to withhold that $1 million and place it in a trust account, bank account, interest bearing until the fee issue has been resolved. I find that that portion of her testimony regarding it be for a short time only is not credible. And I find the testimony of Mr. West regarding these fee disputes to be credible.

So I am directing that this money be placed back in the Edwards and Angell trust account, interest bearing, not to be released under any circumstances without a further Court order until the fee issues are resolved.

The trial court directed that the money be returned to the Edwards & Angell account within 30 days. Morrison never complied.

Lesson learned?

Always keep your eye on the money.  When in doubt, make sure you have the appropriate orders in place to ensure estate funds don’t get distributed until you’re sure all interested parties – including the attorneys – have been provided for.  Sure, you can always sue for the return of wrongfully distributed estate funds (733.812), but why put yourself in that position to begin with?