This is a follow-up to a case I previously wrote about here. The focus of my prior blog post was whether the attorney who drafted the contested will, Alan Watson, had violated Florida Bar Ethics Rule 4-1.8(c), which prohibits an attorney from preparing a will giving the attorney or a person "related" to the attorney any substantial gift from a client unless the client is related to the proposed donee. Watson drafted a will that disinherited the decedent’s children in favor of Watson’s niece and her boyfriend. Based on a strict reading of Rule 4-1.8(c) my conclusion was that Watson’s niece did not fall within the definition of "related person" for purposes of the rule and thus there was no violation; the Florida Bar seems to have agreed with my conclusion (reluctantly I’m sure).
Florida Supreme Court Ethics Ruling:
As documented in the Referee’s Report [click here] and the corresponding Florida Supreme Court Order [click here], although Watson was NOT found guilty of violating Rule 4-1.8(c), he did eventually plead guilty to other ethics violations arising out of his involvement with the decedent and was suspended from the practice of law for fifteen days. After reading the Referee’s Report my impression of the case is that the facts smelled sooo bad to the Florida Bar’s investigators that they were determined to nail Watson for something . . . and succeeded.
Lesson learned: Play with fire and you’re going to get burned.
Whether the product of negligence, malfeasance, good intentions or some combination of all of the above, any attorney who puts himself in the position that Watson did in this case is looking for trouble. If you dabble in estate planning/probate, this case is a warning to be careful. When that little voice in your head tells you that maybe something isn’t right – STOP and listen to it! If estate planning/probate is your niche, this case is a good example of what NOT to do when an elderly client with a substantial estate asks you to draft to a will that is bound to be challenged in the future. Forewarned is forearmed.
Special thanks to Tampa attorney and frequent contributor to this blog, Russell R. Winer, for bringing the suspension order to my attention.