There are times when people try to implement an estate plan, but things go awry.  And that can happen when an attorney makes a mistake in drafting a California Trust or Will resulting in legal malpractice.

Bringing and prosecuting a legal malpractice case against an attorney who improperly drafted a California Living Trust or Will is complex, to say the least. It is particularly difficult because knowledge of three distinct areas of law is required for a hopefully successful outcome. First, you need to understand the law as it applies to estate planning (i.e. Living Trusts, Wills, etc.); you also need to understand the rules of civil litigation; and finally, you need to understand the rules and laws as they apply to insurance and bad faith insurance litigation.

Estate Planning: It takes years of experience to become a good estate planning attorney. Over the years, Trusts and Wills have become more complex due to multiple asset classes owned by individuals, married couples with children from previous marriages, and ever changing Trust, Will and Tax laws. Competition between attorneys that provide estate planning services is intense. What used to be only available from large and well-known law firms is now readily available across the spectrum of service providers–now large, medium, small, and solo law firms offer estate planning services. Even nonlawyers provide “assistance” in drafting estate plans. The costs for these estate plans range into the thousands of dollars to as low as $50 through several web-based providers. Unfortunately, with the intense competition between these providers, mistakes are made when attempting to convey the intent of the Trustors (the persons creating the Trust or Will) in the Living Trust or Will. This leads to beneficiaries being harmed if they do not receive the inheritance the Settlors intended. In all events, to successfully bring a successful malpractice claim in this area, one must have a good understanding of California estate plans, including Trusts and Wills.

Civil Litigation: Litigation is the process of filing a lawsuit, preparing for trial, and going to trial. The entire litigation process in California generally takes two to five years to complete. The majority of time in litigation is spent on discovery, which includes depositions, interrogatories, requests of admission, and demands to produce documents. Once discovery is completed the trial court will set a trial date. At trial a jury or a judge hears the case. The lawyers make opening statements, present evidence during direct and cross examination, and make a closing argument making their case why their client should prevail. The litigation process comes to a close with the jury or judge making a decision in favor of the plaintiff or defendant. One must not only understand the law as it relates to estate planning, but also civil litigation, to successfully prosecute a legal malpractice claim pertaining to California Trusts and Wills.

Insurance and Insurance Bad Faith Litigation: Most drafting attorneys have professional malpractice insurance, which covers the attorney up to a set amount for any lawsuit filed against them for legal malpractice. For example, if an attorney has an insurance policy of $1,000,000, then the insurance company who issued that insurance policy to the attorney will pay up to $1,000,000 for a successful litigation claim made against the attorney for legal malpractice. This is where an attorney bringing the legal malpractice lawsuit can do a lot for their beneficiary clients.

The goal is to force the insurance company to settle the lawsuit early on for the policy limits. If the goal is reached, the beneficiary obtains monetary damages for the loss they sustained by the drafting attorney’s malpractice without having to undergo the entire litigation process, which is time-consuming and extremely stressful. To implement the goal the attorney for the beneficiary simply needs to make a “reasonable” settlement offer (usually just inside policy limits) to the drafting attorney and the drafting attorney’s insurance company. If the insurance company refuses to pay the policy limit, it’s very likely the insurance company will be responsible for any judgment amount over the policy limit. This generally causes (and motivates) the insurance company to settle for policy limits.  Or if the company still refuses to settle, then it sets the stage for a bad-faith action against the insurance company down the road.  Either way, it’s a benefit to the beneficiary-plaintiff. Insurance and Insurance Bad Faith Litigation are perhaps the most misunderstood aspects of successfully bringing a legal malpractice lawsuit. You must know this area of the law.

Each of these three areas can be complex in their own right.  And in attorney malpractice cases in the California Trust and Will arena, you’ll need to combine knowledge of all three areas to be successful.

Feel free to call me if you have any questions about initiating and prosecuting a legal malpractice lawsuit against a drafting attorney. Also, if you would like the letter our firm sends to insurance companies for these types of cases, let me know.

From time to time we have clients come to our office upset that the attorney who drafted their parents’ California estate plan (i.e., living trust, will, and durable powers of attorney) got it wrong or perhaps failed to properly implement the parents’ estate plan.

In a recent case we handled an attorney drafted an amendment to a Trust for a mother. The mother intended the amendment to change the distribution scheme between her children. The original trust called for an equal division amongst the children, and now the amendment called for a different division. The mother signed the amendment, and believed that the distribution changes under the amendment would be followed after she died.

After the mother’s death, it was found that the drafting attorney did not properly draft the amendment. Due to the drafting attorney’s mistake, several of the children were significantly damaged; these children would not receive what their mother intended under the amendment because it was invalidly created.

That unfortunately led to a malpractice lawsuit being filed against the drafting attorney. The balance of this blog article outlines how we communicated with the attorney’s malpractice insurance carrier to settle the lawsuit prior to going to trial.

We want to make it clear that insurance companies do not settle lawsuits for fair value—if they settle at all. The insurance industry has taken the position that they will vigorously litigate all lawsuits even if meritorious allegations are made and liability and damages are clear. In response to this position, we needed a strategy for getting the drafting attorney’s insurance company to agree to settle for policy limits—before going all the way to trial.

To implement our strategy, we needed to know what the damages were to our clients—the children harmed by the drafting attorney’s mistake. We determined the damages were in excess of $1,000,000. Next, we needed to know how much insurance coverage the drafting attorney had for legal malpractice coverage. Through discovery we found out that the policy limit for this case was $500,000. That means that the insurance company was only required to pay the first $500,000 of any judgment for legal malpractice against the drafting attorney.

Once we determined damages and potential insurance coverage, we sent out the balance of our written discovery and took the depositions we needed to establish all the elements for legal malpractice. We were now in a position to force the insurance company to settle for $500,000 or risk being on the hook for the entire $1,000,000 in damages.

We spent a lot of time on a settlement demand letter to the opposing attorney, which we copied on the insurance adjuster. The letter set out the facts, the clear liability, and the clear damages. We gave the insurance company 30 days to think about whether they would accept or reject the offer. In this case, the insurance company ultimately accepted the settlement demand. If they had not, then we would have gone after them for bad faith for refusing to settle for a reasonable amount. In this case the $500,000 settlement amount was reasonable, because the total liability was easily in excess of $1,000,000.

As you can see, when you carefully plan your strategy in a case, you can obtain good outcomes for clients without exposing them to several years of litigation, which is exactly what the insurance company wants to do. But our proactive actions put the insurance company in a difficult position—either settle for a reasonable amount now, or likely end up paying a much larger amount for the damages sustained by the mother’s children. We (and our clients) were okay with the insurance company choosing either option.

If you would like a copy of the redacted letter I sent to the insurance company, please let me know.