Court of Appeals Reiterates No Duty to Will Beneficiaries

A gavel in a courtroom.

Division I of the Court of Appeals in Reznick v. Livengood, Alskog, PLLC, 2016 WL 7470037 (Wn. App. Dec. 27, 2016) (unpublished), recently reiterated that will beneficiaries ordinarily do not have standing to bring a legal malpractice claim against the attorney who drew the will involved because they are not clients of the lawyer. In doing so, the Court of Appeals relied primarily on its own opinion in Parks v. Fink, 173 Wn. App. 366, 293 P.3d 1275 (2013), which, in turn, applied the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Trask v. Butler, 123 Wn.2d 835, 872 P.2d 1080 (1994).

The lawyer in Reznick had prepared a will for a long-time client in 2005. The will left most of the estate to non-family members but included specific dollar bequests to the client’s two sisters. In 2012, the lawyer was called to the client’s death bed. The client, who could not speak by that point, communicated her wish to revoke the 2005 will so that her two sisters could split her estate by intestate succession by squeezing the lawyer’s hand in response to his question. The client, however, died later that day before the lawyer could actually destroy the 2005 will. Under Washington law, he could not effectively destroy the prior will outside the client’s presence. The 2005 will, therefore, remained in force and the two sisters sued the lawyer for malpractice.

The sisters did not meet one of the standard requisites for a legal malpractice claim: they were not the lawyer’s clients. The sisters instead attempted to rely on a narrow exception to the standing requirement articulated by the Supreme Court in Trask. In that case, the Supreme Court outlined a “multi-factor balancing test” for assessing whether a non-client can bring a malpractice claim. Although a key element of the test is whether the work involved was intended to benefit the non-client, Washington courts — including Trask—have generally concluded that will beneficiaries do not qualify because the lawyers involved did not owe specific duties to the beneficiaries. The Court of Appeals noted that it had discussed the Trask lineage extensively in Parks — where it also found that a will beneficiary did not meet the Trask alternative. Accordingly, relying on Trask and Parks, the Court of Appeals in Resnick concluded that the sisters did not meet the Trask alternative test for standing.

Although not mentioned in Resnick, the Court of Appeals’ more extensive analysis in Parks included a discussion of the scenarios (173 Wn. App. at 376 n. 9)—principally in the guardianship context where an instrument is prepared specifically for the ward’s benefit — where the Trask test may be met.