The Probate Lawyer’s Fiduciary Duty

April 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

What exactly is the duty owed to beneficiaries by a lawyer who represents the executor of an estate? Is there a fiduciary relationship?

In the MSSC case Gibson v. Williams, Williams & Montgomery and Montgomery, decided March 10, 2016, the court raised that question in the context of a legal malpractice claim.

Bobby Gibson had sued the lawyer and law firm over administration of his deceased wife’s estate, claiming wrongful conduct. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the Special Chancellor granted, and Bobby appealed.

On appeal, the MSSC reversed. One of the arguments defendants had raised in the summary judgment was that they owed Bobby no fiduciary duty, and hence he could not sue them for violation of a duty they did not have. Justice Dickinson addressed the point in the court’s opinion:

¶50. It is axiomatic that “a fiduciary duty must exist before a breach of the duty can occur.”[Fn 43] Attorney-client relationships give rise to fiduciary duties as evidenced by this Court’s recognition of legal-malpractice claims based on fiduciary obligations. [Fn 44] And as discussed earlier, we hold that a genuine issue of material fact remains on the issue of whether such a relationship existed between Montgomery and Bobby.

[Fn 43] Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C. v. Seay, 42 So. 3d 474, 485 (Miss. 2010) (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 564 (5th ed. 1979)).

[Fn 44] See Crist v. Loyacono, 65 So. 3d 837, 842 (Miss. 2011).

¶51. But the absence of an attorney-client relationship does not foreclose the possibility of the existence of a fiduciary relationship. In Mississippi, “[a] fiduciary relationship may arise in a legal, moral, domestic, or personal context, where there appears ‘on the one side an overmastering influence or, on the other, weakness, dependence, or trust, justifiably reposed.’” [Fn 45] So fiduciaries’ duties may arise as a matter of law from certain specified relationships such as attorney and client; or they may be created by the facts and circumstances of a particular relationship, taking into account the above factors.

[Fn 45] Id. (citing Milner v. Bertasi, 530 So. 2d 168, 170 (Miss. 1988); Matter of Estate of Haney, 516 So. 2d 1359 (Miss. 1987)) (emphasis added).

¶52. In Baker Donelson, we recognized that, for decades, this Court has held that fiduciary relationships can arise in a variety of contexts, and that relationships between attorneys and third parties can give rise to a fiduciary relationship—and the requisite fiduciary duties—despite the absence of an actual “attorney-client” relationship. [Fn 46] Accordingly, the general rule in Mississippi is that, under certain facts and circumstances, attorneys can acquire fiduciary obligations to third parties who are not their clients where no attorney-client relationship is present. [Fn 47] Fiduciary relationships often turn on questions of fact related to exertion of influence, whether a party trusted and relied on another party, and whether the reliance was justified.

[Fn 46] Baker Donelson, 42 So. 3d 474, 485 (Miss. 2010).

[Fn 47] Id. 23

¶53. In other words, while it is true that we have never held—and we do not hold today—that attorneys for estates always owe fiduciary duties to every estate beneficiary, we see no reason to carve out a rule of special protection for estate attorneys, exempting them from any beneficiary claim of a fiduciary relationship. An attorney for the estate may, under certain circumstances, owe fiduciary duties to a beneficiary of the estate based on the same considerations relevant to determine fiduciary duties to all third parties. The existence of these fiduciary relationships are questions to be determined in the trial court, and here, we believe sufficient evidence exists in the record for a factfinder to conclude that Montgomery owed Bobby fiduciary duties, even without a finding of an attorney-client relationship.

¶54. And, should the trial court find that Montgomery assumed fiduciary duties to Bobby, we also find that—viewing the facts and allegations in the light most favorable to Bobby—Montgomery allegedly induced Bobby into signing a petition without first informing him of the consequences. This, in effect, caused Bobby to waive his statutory rights to contest and renounce Debbie’s will. Montgomery approached Bobby under circumstances which, if not enough to create an attorney-client relationship, could support an inference of dependence and trust, as Montgomery purported to have Bobby’s interests in mind and to exercise control over Debbie’s estate. There is evidence in the record to support Bobby’s claim that Montgomery coerced or compelled him to deduct $50,000 of life-insurance proceeds to fund a bequest in Debbie’s will. These acts, if true—and assuming a fiduciary relationship is found to have existed—would constitute a breach of that fiduciary duty. So genuine issues of material fact remain regarding Bobby’s fiduciary-duty claims.

¶55. To be clear, we do not address today the duties of attorneys who represent executors and administrators of estates. Montgomery claims he was the attorney for the estate and not for the executor of the estate. In thirty filings with the trial court, Montgomery was either listed as or signed as the “attorney for the Estate.” Indeed, we are unable to locate a single filing in which Montgomery identifies himself as, or claims to be, an attorney for the executor. Additionally, Montgomery is identified as attorney for the estate within the trial transcript and the appellee’s brief. And finally we note that, within the first five minutes at oral argument, Montgomery’s own counsel unequivocally stated that nothing in the record indicates anything other than that Montgomery and his law firm acted as attorneys for the Estate.

So the answer to the question, then, is “quite possibly.” It’s something to bear in mind as you go about the business of handling an estate. I recommend you read the entire opinion, especially the recitation of facts.

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