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Thursday, December 15, 2011

DRAFTING ATTORNEY WHO IS ALSO BENEFICIARY MAY CONTEST WILL [FLORIDA]

[This article was prepared by Sean Lebowitz of our office]

The Agee v. Brown* decision has been a highly talked about recent 4th DCA opinion among Florida estate planners and probate litigators. In Agee, an attorney prepared a Will (“2007 Will”) for the Decedent naming himself and his wife as beneficiaries of real property. Two years later, the Decedent went to a different attorney and prepared a subsequent Will (“2009 Will”) that removed the attorney and his wife as beneficiaries.

When the Decedent passed away, the Personal Representative sought to have the 2009 Will admitted into probate. The drafting attorney of the 2007 Will filed a Petition to Revoke Probate which alleged the 2007 Will is the last valid Will of the Decedent.

In response, the Personal Representative filed a Motion to Dismiss which alleged that the drafting attorney lacked standing to contest the 2009 Will. The Motion to Dismiss asserted that the drafting attorney’s bequest in the 2007 Will is void since it is in violation of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. In particular, Rule 4-1.8(c) does not permit an attorney to prepare an instrument for a client which gives the attorney or a person related to the attorney a substantial gift unless the recipient of the gift is related to the client. In the instant case, the drafting attorney and his wife were not related to the Decedent. The Probate Court granted the Personal Representative’s Motion to Dismiss and determined that the drafting attorney lacked standing to contest the 2009 Will because his bequest in the 2007 Will was void due to public policy.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the Probate Court and found that notwithstanding his ethical violation, the drafting attorney did have standing to contest the 2009 Will. The Appellate Court determined that the Probate Code does not provide any exception to prohibit a drafting attorney who is also a substantial beneficiary from contesting a will. Instead, the Probate Code simply permits an “interested person” to file an action contesting a Will. “Interested person” is defined very broadly in the Probate Code, allowing any person reasonably affected by the proceeding to file an action. The Appellate Court conservatively analyzed the Probate Code and found that the Probate Court imputed ethical rules not found in the Probate Code.

*Disclaimer: Our firm represents the Appellee/Respondent, Mr. Brown, in his capacity as Personal Representative and Trustee in the probate and trust litigation.

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