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Florida Probate Litigation: Stealing from an Estate

Written by on Aug 9, 2011| Posted in: Probate Litigation

My probate practice regularly performs cleaning services for the messes caused by maladministration of estates by fiduciaries.  Unfortunately, with increasing frequency, estates and their beneficiaries are victimized not only by negligent fiduciaries, but by attorneys who steal from the estates.

For example, one attorney was recently charged with stealing more than $300,000 in guns, jewelry and art from a friend who died of cancer.   A beneficiary named in the will contacted police after receiving nothing from the estate.    Evidently, the lawyer was unsuccessful in attempting to be appointed personal representative of the estate.  Further, the lawyer was charged with forgery for allegedly signing the decedent’s name on a check two days after the man passed away.  Finally, the lawyer was charged with perjury for allegedly claiming to be executor of the estate when he re-registered several guns in his name.

Misconduct by Florida attorneys involved in handling wills and trusts is not uncommon.  All too often I am asked to investigate and ultimately prosecute will contests which involve attorneys playing an active role, not only in the procurement of the will, but in having themselves or their relatives named as beneficiaries under the will. The Florida Supreme Court has adopted a portion of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Responsibility, and in particular, the prohibition against lawyers playing a role in the drafting and execution of a will or trust where they are named as a beneficiary.

Rule 4-1.8. Conflict of Interest; Prohibited and Other Transactions

(c) Gifts to Lawyer or Lawyer’s Family. A lawyer shall not solicit any substantial gift from a client, including a testamentary 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. For purposes of this subdivision, related persons include a spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent, or other relative with whom the lawyer or the client maintains a close, familial relationship.

This code provision was relied on in disciplinary proceedings against a lawyer in The Florida Bar vs. Anderson, 638 So.2d 29 (Fla. 1994). In October 1988, Anderson, a probate lawyer, undertook the representation of Mary Sisler. Between that time and Sisler’s death two years later, he prepared nine testamentary instruments, six of which named him or his wife as beneficiaries of Sisler’s estate. The Court found his conduct to be unprofessional even though Anderson did not intend that either he or his wife benefit from the bequests and even though he received no real benefit from any instrument he drafted for Sisler. The Court found, however, that Anderson was attempting, inartfully, to effectuate Sisler’s intent to shield the bequests from the creditors of the Palm Beach Festival, her intended beneficiary.

The Anderson decision and the Rule of Professional Responsibility upon which it is predicated, underscores the deep-rooted policy in Florida that a lawyer who drafts a will in which the attorney or a member of his family is a beneficiary raises the issue of undue influence that taints the entire will and may destroy the validity of other bequests as well. Florida law will not tolerate this conduct as it frustrates the intentions of a client who has entrusted the attorney with the responsibility of seeing that the estate is distributed according to the client’s wishes. Further, in the cases I have handled, I invariably find that the attorney’s credibility as a witness on testamentary capacity is impaired by the attorney’s personal interest in the outcome.

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