Appeals Court Holds No Duty to Non-client Trust Beneficiary in Legal Malpractice Case

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

This past fall Division II of the Court of Appeals concluded in a legal malpractice case that a lawyer who prepared a trust and a later amendment for his client did not owe a duty to a prospective beneficiary of the trust. The case, Linth v. Gay, ___ Wn. App. ___, 360 P.3d 844 (2015), involved an asserted error in preparing an amendment to a client’s trust. A prospective trust beneficiary who was affected negatively by the asserted error sued the lawyer, who prepared the amendment, for legal malpractice. On summary judgment, the lawyer argued that he owed no duty to the trust beneficiary because she was not his client. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. Division II affirmed.

Division II began by noting that a legal malpractice claimant must ordinarily show that the claimant is a current or former client of the lawyer or law firm involved, citing Hizey v. Carpenter, 119 Wn.2d 251, 830 P.2d 646 (1992). In this instance, the prospective trust beneficiary conceded that she had never been the lawyer’s client. Instead, the beneficiary argued that the lawyer owed her a duty under a limited exception to Hizey’s “privity” rule articulated in Trask v. Butler, 123 Wn.2d 835, 872 P.2d 1080 (1994). Trask outlined a “modified multi-factor balancing test” that focuses heavily on whether a non-client was a specific intended beneficiary of the legal services involved.

Division II observed that Trask itself concluded that no duty was owed to incidental estate beneficiaries. Division II also noted that Division I recently reached the same conclusion regarding will beneficiaries in Parks v. Fink, 173 Wn. App. 366, 293 P.3d 1275 (2013). Division II then distinguished In re Guardianship of Karan, 110 Wn. App. 76, 38 P.3d 396 (2002), where Division III found that a non-client ward was an intended beneficiary of a guardianship and, therefore, met the Trask test. Finding that Linth was closer to Parks than Karan, Division II held that the trust beneficiary in Linth did not meet the Trask test and affirmed the dismissal of her claim.