Even in the best of circumstances, an estate plan may leave intended beneficiaries frustrated. Occasionally, an attorney’s alleged mistake in the execution of a will or administration of a trust sparks the beneficiaries’ anger. Under Washington law, it is unclear whether intended beneficiaries may sue an estate planning attorney for malpractice. Generally, an estate planning attorney’s client is a testator, not a testator’s intended beneficiaries; thus, the intended beneficiaries are not in privity of contract with the attorney. Rather, the only individual in privity with the accused attorney is usually deceased at the time of a malpractice lawsuit. If a strict privity rule applies, courts will leave beneficiaries with few options to hold attorneys accountable for costly mistakes in the drafting or execution of estate planning documents. On the other hand, courts will expand the scope of liability too far if they allow any nonclient to sue an estate planning attorney for malpractice.
First, this Comment traces trends in Washington estate planning malpractice law. The discussion begins with two Washington State Supreme Court decisions that suggest a balancing test, rather than a strict privity rule, defines the scope of attorney malpractice liability to nonclients. Then it analyzes two Washington State court of appeals cases that demonstrate how the balancing test still favors privity in its application. Second, this Comment weighs the strengths and weaknesses of other jurisdictions’ approaches to attorney malpractice liability to nonclients. Third, it considers different scenarios in which courts may hold an estate planning attorney liable to nonclients under Washington law. Finally, this Comment recommends that courts require nonclient intended beneficiaries to exhaust Washington’s will and trust reformation statute before bringing a claim against an estate planning attorney.
Kaitlyn C Kelly, Put Privity In The Past: A Modern Approach For Determining When Washington Attorneys Are Liable To Nonclients For Estate Planning Malpractice, Washington Law Review volume 91:1851 (2016).