Protecting Clients From Their Own Mistakes Can Be A Challenge

DECEMBER 14 , 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 64

Preparation of an estate plan is more than the individual documents. A good attorney considers the client’s circumstances and wishes, and analyzes the best course of action. The process requires the attorney and the client to communicate, and to work together.

Too often, however, problems arise after the attorney’s work is done. Clients are often pulled in different directions by family members, bankers, accountants, and other professionals. Television, radio, newspaper and magazine presentations aimed at mass audiences may confuse or mislead the client. Even if the client resists all of those voices, documents may get lost or inadvertently destroyed. What is a conscientious estate planner to do?

Many lawyers routinely hold on to original documents prepared for their clients. The best argument for doing so: it helps prevent accidental destruction or loss of the documents, and makes it harder for clients to make inadvertent changes.

Other lawyers do not like the practice. It takes considerable resources to manage a large collection of original documents. Holding on to originals also conveys the (false) impression that the children or other successors must return to the same lawyer later for administration of the estate.

A small minority of lawyers regularly prepare multiple originals of wills, trusts and powers of attorney. If one original document is in the lawyer’s office, at least it will not be misplaced by the client. This approach also helps reduce the concern that family must return to the same lawyer, since originals in the client’s possession can be used without the lawyer even knowing about the disability or death of the client.

Neither of these techniques does much to protect against the client becoming subject to undue — or unwise — influence. The scenario is common enough to be clichéd: the carefully considered estate plan prepared while the client is clearly competent is changed at the behest of a grasping relative or friend without the original lawyer ever being consulted or even advised.

One Illinois lawyer came up with an unusual way to protect against inadvertent or misguided changes to his clients’ estate plan. Attorney Lawrence Patterson included a provision in at least one married couple’s documents. It prohibited revocation or amendment of the estate plan without the attorney’s written consent.

Was Mr. Patterson’s approach effective? That depends entirely on how one defines “effective.” He has now been sued by his former clients AND is the subject of a pending ethics complaint through the Illinois Bar. Did he “overreach,” or was his concern for clients “admirable?”

We offer those two terms advisedly. They appear in two of the available documents responding to Mr. Patterson’s approach. Here is what has happened in the public record so far:

First, Mr. Patterson’s clients visited a new lawyer to modify their estate plan. The new lawyer wrote to Mr. Patterson, asking him to acknowledge that the clients had the right and power to do that. Mr. Patterson wrote back, telling the new lawyer that he would first need to meet with the clients to “determine whether the changes are consistent with the interests and protections embodied in the original plan.”

Rather than meet with Mr. Patterson, his clients filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that Mr. Patterson could not control whether they amended their estate plan. The trial judge agreed, dismissing Mr. Patterson’s objections summarily and assessing legal fees and costs of $5,393.75 against him. Mr. Patterson appealed both determinations to the Illinois Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile someone (it may have been the clients, the opposing lawyer or even the judge in the trial case) notified the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of Mr. Patterson’s refusal to consent to the changes without first meeting with his (now) former clients. The Commission (which regulates lawyers practicing in Illinois) filed a two-count complaint against Mr. Patterson for what it saw as “overreaching.”

Interestingly, the first count in the ethics complaint dealt with an entirely unrelated matter, in which Mr. Patterson brought a guardianship petition against a client when she disagreed with his advice in a contested probate matter–a practice we have previously written about in another unrelated case out of Washington State. The ethics complaint against Mr. Patterson is still pending.

Then the Illinois Court of Appeals ruled on the lawsuit against Mr. Patterson. Its analysis indicated that his clients had given Mr. Patterson a fiduciary role over and above his standing as their attorney. They had made an irrevocable decision, according to the appellate court, to give him the power to oversee their estate planning changes in the future. Even though they subsequently fired him as their attorney, he remained as the arbiter of their future estate planning changes.

Far from criticizing him for his role, the Court of Appeals found his conduct to be “admirable, and consistent with the highest ideals of the bar.” The appellate court noted that the documents prepared by Mr. Patterson gave his clients the power to seek court approval of any change if they did not want to deal with him, and that his power was tempered by a duty to act as a fiduciary for his clients. “In light of the obvious expense to Patterson,” noted the appellate court with understatement, “we will leave it to other estate planners whether they wish to use this particular method of estate planning.” Dunn v. Patterson, November 18, 2009.

Note: we owe a considerable debt to the research work on Mr. Patterson carried out by Illinois estate planning attorney Joel Schoenmeyer. His excellent, entertaining and informative blog “Death and Taxes” has tackled the Patterson case, as well.

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