Here’s one of those facts of life most probate lawyers learn early on in their careers: testators aren’t always 100% honest when describing their intentions to potential beneficiaries. For example, just because a client tells his second wife (or girlfriend) she’ll be taken care of in his will . . . doesn’t mean he really means it. Or maybe he meant it at the time he said it, but then had second thoughts and just never quite got around to signing that new will.
It’s that kind of common sense that’s at the heart of a recent California appellate decision in which the court held that a widow (second wife) lacked standing to sue her late husband’s estate-planning lawyer for failing to prepare a will that would have disinherited her late husband’s minor son (from a prior marriage) and left everything to her instead. The analysis underlying Myung Chang v. Lederman, 172 Cal.App.4th 67 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. Mar 16, 2009), is thorough and well-reasoned. If you ever find yourself facing a similar claim, you’ll want to pull this opinion and give it a read. When all is said and done, however, I think the court recognized the point I made above and ruled accordingly. Here’s the key excerpt from the opinion:
From a practical standpoint, common experience teaches that potential testators may change their minds more than once after the first meeting [with their estate planning lawyer] . . . [FN6]
FN6. Common experience also teaches that testator’s may not be completely candid when describing their intentions to potential beneficiaries.
For a detailed summary of the Lederman opinion, see Marshall Oldman’s piece in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise [click here].
And for a similar ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, see the Wills, Trusts and Estates Prof Blog post entitled South Carolina: No Attorney Duty to Prospective Will Beneficiaries.