Carey v. Rocke, 18 So.3d 1266 (Fla. 2d DCA October 23, 2009)

Pinellas Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin

According to newspaper accounts this will contest revolved around allegations of undue influence and related attorney ethics violations. The decedent’s attorney wrote himself and his paralegal into a client’s will for what ultimately morphed into a $7.2 million bequest between the two of them, which is a big “no-no” under Fla. Bar Rule 4-1.8(c). That ethics violation played a central role in the outcome of this case. Which shouldn’t be surprising. For a comprehensive list of cases across the country dealing with the same ethics rule, see ACTEC’s Commentary on MRPC 1.8.

Unfortunately, the 2d DCA’s opinion linked-to above provides zero insight into this extraordinary case, simply affirming “without discussion” the trial-court’s first order and sending it back to the trial-court judge to address one open item. And that’s where for all intents and purposes the public side of this story would have ended but for a lucky break. I had the good fortune of running into Fort Lauderdale probate litigator Lawrence Livoti, who was tangentially involved in the case, and was kind enough to provided me with copies of the trial-court orders [click here, here]. Both orders were authored by Pinellas Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin, and are discussed below. In terms of work product, these orders rank at the top as the most thoughtful and scholarly probate-court orders I’ve ever come across in my career. They do a fantastic job of dissecting the intersection of Florida law and professional ethics in a will contest involving a possible Rule 4-1.8(c) violation, and should be required reading for anyone involved in a similar case.

[1] First Order: Did ethics violation = undue influence? YES

You can’t get sued because you violate an ethics rule, but it’s powerful evidence against you. That is the crux of Judge Laughlin’s analysis in her first order. Here’s an excerpt:

The issue of whether an attorney may draft a will in which he is named as a beneficiary is not a new or novel question. Under Roman law, the scrivener of a will could not inherit under it. See Dig. 48.15 (supplement to the lex cornelia ordered in edict by Emperor Claudius). Although Florida law does not necessarily prohibit such a practice, an attorney naming themselves a beneficiary of a client’s will opens himself/herself up to a charge of undue influence because of the peculiarly confidential relationship between an attorney and client. “The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel”. SIR FRANCIS BACON, Of Counsel, in Essays, Civil and Moral Ch. XX (Charles W. Eliot, ed. 1909-1914), at p. 181 (1846). “The duty to deal fairly, honestly, and with undivided loyalty superimposes onto the attorney-client relationship a set of special and unique duties, including maintaining confidentiality, avoiding conflicts of interest over the lawyer’s.” In re Cooperman, 633 N.E. 2d 1069 (N.Y. 1994). Indeed, “the lawyer may not place himself in a position where a conflicting interest may, even inadvertently affect, or give the appearance of affecting, the obligations of the professional relationship.” In re Kelly, 244 N.B. 2d 456. 460 (N.Y. 1968).

The nature of the attorney-client relationship in matters testamentary is a particularly circumspect matter for the courts. The decisions that go into the drafting of a testamentary instrument are inherently private. Because the testator will not be available to correct any errors that the attorney may have made when the will is offered for probate, a client is especially dependent upon an attorney’s advice and professional skill when they consult an attorney to have a will drawn. A client’s dependence upon, and trust in, an attorney’s skills, disinterested advice, and ethical conduct exceeds the trust and confidence found in most fiduciary relationships. Seldom is the client’s dependence upon and trust in his attorney greater than when, contemplating his own mortality, he seeks the attorney’s advice, guidance and drafting skill in the preparation of a will to dispose of his estate after death. These consultations are among the most private to take place between an attorney and his client. “The client is dealing with his innermost thoughts and feelings, which he may not wish to share with his spouse, children and other next of kin.” Kirschbaum v. Dillon, 567N.E. 2d 1291, 1296 (Ohio 1990).

The Florida Bar has adopted ethical standards to provide professional guidelines for lawyers who find themselves in the situation of a client wishing to leave them a bequest.

Gifts to Lawyer or Lawyer’s Family. A lawyer shall not solicit any substantial gift, or prepare on behalf of a client an instrument giving the lawyer or a person related to the lawyer any substantial gift unless the lawyer or other recipient of the gift is related to the client.

R. Regulating Fla. Bar4-1.8(c)

The Comment to Rule 4-1.8(c) . . . provided a suggested procedure which might be curative of the inherent conflict of interest of an attorney/beneficiary.

If a client offers the lawyer a more substantial gift, subdivision (c) does not prohibit the lawyer from accepting it, although such a gift may be voidable by the client under the doctrine of undue influence, which treats client gifts as presumptively fraudulent. If effectuation of a substantial gift requires preparing a legal instrument such as a will or conveyance, however, the client should have the detached advice that another lawyer can provide and the lawyer should advise the client to seek advice of independent counsel.

R. Regulating Fla. Bar 4-1.8, Comment
“Gifts to Lawyers.”

The court recognizes that a violation of a rule of professional conduct does not constitute per se proof of undue influence. The rule and its comment should be instructive to any lawyer on how to properly effectuate the testamentary wish of a client who wishes to make a gift to their lawyer without encumbering his client’s estate with the time and expense of a will contest. Sadly, these suggestions were not followed in this case.

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The respondent has argued that a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct does not provide a basis for a finding of undue influence in this case. This court agrees. In Florida, a violation of the Rules does not directly prove undue influence. The attorney-client relationship simply establishes one element of undue influence. The Rules establish a standard of conduct which, if followed, might avoid allegations of undue influence. To ignore that established standard of care when, in fact, the Rules are common knowledge within the profession, and one has been advised of the ethical problems, demonstrates a consciousness of the conflict of interest. The behavior demonstrated by the alleged undue influencers, in the face of knowledge of the curative steps which could have been taken to insure a valid bequest, was no more than a halfhearted attempt to comply with the ethical standard expected of the legal profession. This bears on the credibility of the testimony and the knowing, planned and measured conduct of the two beneficiaries in question: Jack Carey and his legal, assistant, Gloria DuBois.

It is difficult to completely separate the allegation of undue influence from the disciplinary rule because of the inherently confidential nature of the attorney-client relationship, which is an element of undue influence. Additionally, the attorney whose bequests are at issue in this case was himself sixty-eight years old and retired at the time of the 1994 will. This court must acknowledge that Mr. Carey has had an exemplary career in the legal profession. He enjoys a reputation as an honest professional and a civic-minded citizen of great integrity. For this reason, deciding the facts and issues in this case has been especially painful and troubling. The court cannot help but speculate on whether the lawyer made a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the risks of being charged with a disciplinary infraction (having no intention of continuing to practice law) against the economic benefits to be derived from the conduct. 

[2] Second Order: Does the doctrine of “dependent relative revocation” always apply? NO

On remand the 2d DCA asked Judge Laughlin to enter a second order explaining why her original ruling resulted in the $7.2 million residuary value of this estate passing by intestacy rather than pursuant to the residuary clause of one of the decedent’s multiple prior wills. Here again Judge Laughlin does a masterful job of deconstructing Florida law, this time focusing on the “dependent relative revocation” doctrine [a recurring topic on this blog], and explaining why it did NOT apply in this case. The key point here is that this doctrine should only apply if the decedent’s prior will was NOT materially different from the will that’s being set aside. If that’s not the case (and for most serial testators it often isn’t), then the doctrine doesn’t apply. Here’s how Judge Laughlin summarized the law on this point:

The doctrine of dependent relative revocation (DRR) is essentially based upon a fiction: ” … where a testator revokes a valid will, and the new will is found to be invalid, the prior will may be re-established on the ground that the revocation was dependent on the validity of the new will, and the testator would have preferred the earlier will to intestacy.” Denson v. Fayson, 525 So. 2d 432 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988). It is not a rule of law, but rather, a rule of presumed intention. That presumption is rebuttable and can be overcome if contrary evidence concerning the testator’s intent is admitted. In re Lubbe’s Estate, 142 So. 2d 130, 135 (Fla. 2d DCA 1962). Application of DRR is dependent upon a showing that the testator only conditionally revoked the old will believing the new will would be effective. The proper application of the doctrine depends upon a sufficient showing that the provisions of the invalid will are not materially different from the prior will. If they are materially different, the doctrine is not applicable and the presumption is rebutted. See id.

The doctrine of DRR is more understandable when it is referred to by another name, such as ineffective revocation, the doctrine of retroactive revival, or revocation under mistake. See e.g., RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF PROPERTY 4.3 cmt. a (1999) (ineffective revocation). See also Frank L. Schiavo, Dependent Relative Revocation Has Gone Astray: It Should Return to Its Roots, 13 WIDENER L.Rev. 73, 96 (2006) (doctrine of retroactive revival); Joseph Warren, Dependent Relative Revocation, 33 HARV. L. REV. 337,337 (1920). Historically the doctrine has dealt with cases of mistake: where there has been a revocation by physical act under a mistaken belief of fact or law or invalidity because of a defect in execution. Because of “mistake,” all of the early cases go to a total, rather than partial, revocation of the subsequent will and reinstatement of the prior will. Onions v. Tyrer, 23 Eng. Rep. 1085 (Ch.); Hairston v. Hairston, 30 Miss. 276 (1855); Stewart v. Johnson, 194 So. 869,870 (Fla. 1940); In re Estate of Johnson, 359 So. 2d. 425 (Fla. 1978); In re Estate of Pratt, 88 So. 2d 499 (Fla. 1956); In re Estate of Lubbe, 142 So. 2d 130 (Fla. 2d DCA 1962); First Union Nan Bank v. Estate of Mizell, 807 2d 78 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001).

For additional commentary on this case, you’ll want to read The South Indian Monkey Trap, by Foley & Lardner partner John T. Brooks. The drafting attorney at the center of this case was eventually disbarred. See The Florida Bar v. Carey, 46 So.3d 48 (Fla. 2010).