I’ve received a number of inquiries regarding the $1 million estate-planning/probate malpractice verdict recently upheld on appeal, which I previously wrote about [click here].  I think many practitioners are trying to figure out what went wrong in that case and what they can do to avoid making the same mistakes.

Against this backdrop, a recently published article by LawPRO, a Canadian professional liability (malpractice) insurance provider, should be of interest.  Wills & estates law claims on the rise by Deborah Petch and Dan Pinnington provides claims statistics and risk management advice specifically focused on the probate/estate planning practice area.  Although written for a Canadian audience, the advice seems equally applicable in Florida.

I was especially interested to see that "lawyer/client communication failures" was far and away the single most common cause of malpractice claims.  This finding is in line with the med-mal statistics and "don’t-be-a-jerk" risk management advice given to doctors I previously wrote about [click here].  Another way of stating the don’t-be-a-jerk rule is: respectfully listen to and communicate with your clients.

Here are a few excerpts from the linked-to article:

In both count and cost, wills and estates-related legal malpractice claims have slowly increased over the last several years. By area of law, wills and estates is the fifth most common area of claims: Only litigation, real estate, corporate and family claims are higher. 

Over the last five years, wills and estates-related claims averaged 6.0 per cent of LAWPRO’s claims count (112 claims per year), and 5.4 per cent of our claims costs ($3.9 million per year). On average, resolving a wills and estates claim costs LAWPRO $34,404.

This article examines the reality behind the numbers: It highlights the most common errors, and the steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of a claim.

The most common errors

In the wills and estates area, the most common causes of claims
are the following:

  1. lawyer/client communication failures;
  2. inadequate discovery of facts or inadequate investigation;
  3. failure to know or properly apply the law;
  4. time and deadline-related errors;
  5. conflicts of interest; and
  6. clerical/delegation.

What is striking to most lawyers is that law-related errors rank third.  Lawyer/client communication-related errors are actually the most common, representing almost 40 percent of the errors in the wills and estates area.

*     *     *     *     *

Avoiding communications errors

When it comes to avoiding or reducing the likelihood of a communications-related claim, the importance of putting things in writing cannot be over-emphasized. While the failure to have written confirmation of instructions and advice is not negligence in and of itself, such written communication can be extremely helpful in defending you in the unhappy event that a claim is made against you. Why? Because more often than not, this type of claim involves the lawyer recalling that one thing was said or done, or not said or not done, and a disappointed beneficiary that alleges something different. This type of claim is very hard for LAWPRO to defend successfully. At the end of the day it essentially comes down to a question of credibility. Unfortunately, we frequently find inadequate documentation in the lawyer’s file to back up the lawyer’s version of what occurred. All too frequently, we see files with no correspondence or reporting letters whatsoever.

Fortunately this error is one of the easiest to prevent. You can significantly reduce your claims exposure by documenting your work. Confirm the information that your client provided to you, your advice to the client, the client’s instructions to you, and what steps were taken on those instructions. Document the time spent reviewing the provisions of the will, including what issues were discussed. This can be done in your notes, and in interim or final reporting letters, or even in an e-mail message.

Even taking a few seconds to make more detailed dockets can be a lifesaver. "Conference with client re review of draft will, including provisions re cottage” is much better than just "Conference with client re draft will."

A special caution is warranted for matters involving family members and close friends: We do see claims on these matters, and quite often find almost no documentation in the file. This probably happens because the lawyer is familiar with the personal circumstances of the client, and fails to make and document all appropriate inquiries. It would be best not to act for them; but, if you feel that you must, treat them as though you had never met them before. Remember, often it is not your client who is the potential claimant, rather it is a beneficiary or disappointed beneficiary, with whom you have no personal relationship.