Iowa Supreme Court Says That Estate Attorney Owed no Duty to Protect the Executor’s Personal Interests

Sabin v. Ackerman, No. 12-0627, 2014 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 31 (Iowa Mar. 28, 2014)

 

Overview

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the creation of a relationship between an attorney and an executor of a decedent’s estate does not impose a duty on the attorney to protect the personal interests of the executor. Furthermore, the court ruled that absent some reason to know that the executor believes that the attorney is representing the executor’s personal interests, an attorney has no duty to advise an executor that the attorney’s services are limited to representing the estate and the interests of the beneficiaries. 

Facts

This case arose out of yet another family dispute. The decedent and his wife owned a 120-acre farm, which they leased to their son and his wife for a 16-year term. The lease contract charged an annual rent of $12,500 and provided the son and his wife with an exclusive option to purchase the property for $200,000 during the lease term. The contract provided that the purchase price could be reduced by the total amount of rent that had been paid by the son and his wife. A Waverly, Iowa, attorney prepared the lease and notarized the signatures of the parties to the contract. The decedent passed away in 2005, predeceased by his wife. He left his estate to three of his four children. The son who leased the decedent’s farmland was one of the beneficiaries, as was another son and a daughter, the plaintiff in this action.

The plaintiff was named the executor of the estate under the decedent’s will. She hired the Waverly, Iowa, attorney who had prepared the farm lease contract to be the attorney for the estate. During the pendency of the probate proceedings, the son and his wife exercised their option under the lease contract to purchase the farm, and the beneficiaries transferred the farm to the son and his wife by warranty deed. The estate attorney prepared the documents and notarized the signatures.

After the estate was closed, the plaintiff and the other beneficiary who did not purchase the farmland filed an action against the brother who bought the farm, arguing that the option in the lease was invalid, that the farmland was worth much more than the purchase prices, and that the brother had exerted undue influence on the decedent. The parties later settled the action for a relatively small sum of money.

Lower Court Proceedings

Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff filed a legal malpractice action against the attorney for the estate, alleging that he failed to advise her about potential legal challenges to the validity of the option in the farm lease and that he failed to advise her to seek independent counsel to protect her personal interests.

The attorney filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that he had no duty of care to protect the executor’s personal interests because he only represented her in her capacity as executor of the estate. The district court granted summary judgment to the attorney, but the Iowa Court of Appeals found that a factual dispute existed over the question of whether the executor had a reasonable expectation that the attorney was representing her personal interests.  The attorney (who actually passed away while his summary judgment motion was pending) appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court granted further review.

Iowa Supreme Court Analysis

In vacating the decision of Court of Appeals and affirming the district court’s summary judgment, the Iowa Supreme Court began by reviewing the duties owed by the attorney for an estate. The Court stated that an estate attorney undertakes to perform the fiduciary obligations of the personal representative to properly oversee the administration of the estate. In addition to imposing a duty on the attorney to exercise reasonable skill and care in handling the administration of the estate, Iowa law also requires an estate attorney to advise executors of the legal validity of instruments that affect the administration of the estate. These duties, the Court explained, extend to the estate and to all distributees. The Court also reviewed its recent holding in St. Malachy v. Ingram, again stating that an estate attorney owes a duty to the direct, intended, and specifically identifiable beneficiaries of the will. The Court stated, however, that the third-party beneficiary doctrine is an exception to the general rule that an attorney-client relationship is required to pursue an attorney malpractice action.

In turning to the plaintiff’s claims against the attorney, the Court refused to impose upon attorneys for decedents’ estates the duty to represent the personal interests of the executors. The Court ruled that the creation of a relationship between an attorney and an estate executor did not impose a duty to protect the executor’s personal interests. The Court found no compelling reason to broaden this duty rule. The personal interests of the executor were outside the scope of the services needed to administer the estate. Furthermore, the Court found that the law already protected executors in those situations where the estate attorney knew or should have known that the executor reasonably relied on the attorney to represent the personal interests of the executor.

The Court then considered whether this was a case where the attorney should have known that the executor reasonably relied upon him to protect her personal interests. The Court found that the only evidence the executor offered in support of her position was her subjective belief and the fact that the attorney had never informed her specifically that he did not represent her personally. The Court thus found that no evidence would permit a reasonable fact finder to conclude that the attorney should have reasonably believed that the executor thought the attorney was representing her personal interests with respect to the lease option. Without such evidence, the attorney had no duty to represent the executor’s personal interests and no duty to advise her that he did not represent her personal interests.

The Court concluded that it may be “better practice” for estate attorneys to specifically advise executors and administrators that their services are limited. However, the Court said, a “better practice” does not necessarily describe a legal responsibility. Additionally, a “better practice” is not necessarily identified and developed from the circumstances of a single case. The Court thus refused to impose a new duty upon lawyers based upon the facts and circumstances presented.

Conclusion

It is important to note that although the executor was also a beneficiary, she brought her claim solely under the theory that the attorney owed a duty to protect her personal interests as executor, not as a beneficiary. It is likely she did not pursue the beneficiary theory because she sought to negate the testator’s intent by having the option contract declared invalid. The duty of care owed to intended beneficiaries is grounded in the policy that the intent of the testator not be frustrated by a breach of duty by the estate’s attorney. Thus, it is only when an attorney’s malpractice prevents a direct, intended, and specifically identifiable beneficiary from receiving an intended interest that the attorney breaches his duty to that beneficiary.

This case should serve as a reminder to all attorneys representing decedent’s estates to thoroughly explain in writing the scope of the representation. This “better practice” wards off malpractice claims down the road that could rest upon disputed facts not amenable to summary judgment.  This “better practice” also serves to protect the interests of all. Estate attorneys should also be reminded to be on guard for conflicts of interest that may arise between the estate and the executor during the course of the representation. As required by Iowa R. Prof’l Conduct 32:1.7, an attorney facing a conflict of interest should always clarify his relationship to the parties involved and advise those parties to seek independent counsel to represent their personal interests.

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