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February 3, 2017

Legal Update
Alisa L. Hacker

Expanded liability for estate-planning professionals in Hanna v. Williams?

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The Massachusetts courts limit the ability of disappointed heirs to bring lawsuits against lawyers or other professionals involved in a decedent’s estate planning. The client of such a professional, the courts remind such litigants, was the decedent, not the actual or potential beneficiaries. And any doubts about the validity of the testamentary documents themselves should be resolved by the probate court, not in a malpractice lawsuit.

In a December 2016 decision, nonetheless, a judge of the Massachusetts superior court’s Business Litigation Session kept alive claims both by the estate of a decedent and by frustrated beneficiaries against lawyers and a financial advisor who were involved in a change in the decedent’s estate plan shortly before her death. In particular, while the judge agreed that the beneficiaries could not sue the professionals for malpractice, he refused to dismiss the beneficiaries’ claim for “tortious interference with an expected inheritance” and violation of the Massachusetts consumer-protection statute.

The suit against the professionals followed litigation in probate court over whether the decedent’s governing will was the one prepared by the lawyers and executed just before the decedent’s death in 2013, or one she had executed decades earlier, in 1961. The parties to the probate case reached a settlement, and the probate court entered a judgment based on a compromise between the two wills. In the malpractice case, nonetheless, the plaintiff beneficiaries claimed that the lawyers and advisor involved in the last-minute change of the estate plan “intentionally and unlawfully” interfered with their expected inheritance under the 1961 will.

The professionals sought to dismiss the claim, arguing that allowing the beneficiaries to prove their expected inheritance under the 1961 will would be to intrude on the jurisdiction of the probate court and to permit a collateral attack on that court’s judgment adopting the “compromise” will. But the Business Litigation Session judge disagreed, finding no inconsistency between the compromise in one court and the plaintiffs’ subsequent claim that they had—and lost—a further legitimate expectancy interest in the estate. The judge also found that the nature of the defendants’ alleged wrongdoing would support a claim under the consumer-protection statute.

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