The Lawletter Vol 41 No 4
Lee Dunham, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
In general, an attorney's duty of care extends only to his or her clients, not to third parties. This rule makes intuitive sense in most areas of the law, where the client is typically the party who is injured directly by attorney malpractice. However, in the estate planning context, where the client is often long dead by the time the malpractice is discovered, the true victims of malpractice may be the beneficiaries, or would-be beneficiaries, of the client's estate.
Recognizing this problem, courts of several states have relaxed the "strict privity rule" in malpractice suits against estate planning attorneys. Most notably, in Biakanja v. Irving, 320 P.2d 16 (Cal. 1958), and Lucas v. Hamm, 364 P.2d 685 (Cal. 1961), cert. denied, 368 U.S. 987 (1962), California adopted what has come to be known as the "California Test," a multifactor balancing test designed to determine whether a beneficiary can maintain a malpractice claim against an estate planning attorney despite a lack of privity. The factors include "the extent to which the transaction was intended to affect the plaintiff, the foreseeability of harm to him, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury, and the policy of preventing future harm." Lucas, 364 P.2d at 687 (citing Biakanja, 320 P.2d at 19).
Courts of several other states have adopted a narrower cause of action, referred to as the "Florida-Iowa Rule," under which a beneficiary may maintain a cause of action against the estate planning attorney only if the client's intent, as expressed in the will (or other document), is frustrated. See Espinosa v. Sparber, Shevin, Rosen & Heilbronner, 612 So. 2d 1378, 1380 (Fla. 1993); Schreiner v. Scoville, 410 N.W.2d 679, 683 (Iowa 1987).