APRIL 24, 2006 VOLUME 13, NUMBER 43
Sarah Ann Ester Straw went to her lawyer, N. Frank Lanocha, to have a will prepared. According to Mr. Lanocha, she wanted to leave the bulk of her estate to the lawyer’s daughter, Teresa Lanocha-Sisson. He prepared a will that did exactly that—in fact, it left $1,000 to Mr. Lanocha’s wife Teresa W. Lanocha, $2,000 to area charity Chimes, Inc., and the balance of the estate to Mr. Lanocha’s daughter.
There is a well-recognized ethical rule, however, that prohibits lawyers from writing themselves or family members into wills. There is an exception when the will is being prepared for a family member of the lawyer, but Ms. Straw had no familial relationship with Mr. Lanocha, his wife or daughter. There is a second exception for bequests that are not “substantial,” but the will Mr. Lanocha prepared clearly did not fit within that exception.
When Ms. Straw died and her will was submitted to probate, the judge assigned to the case was troubled by Mr. Lanocha’s conduct. A complaint to the Attorney Grievance Commission initiated a proceeding seeking to discipline Mr. Lanocha.
The Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court—equivalent to the Supreme Court of most other states) ultimately agreed that Mr. Lanocha had behaved improperly. The only sanction for his misbehavior, however, was a public reprimand—Mr. Lanocha’s ability to continue practicing law was not affected, and his daughter was not required to give up her claim to Ms. Straw’s estate.
Four of the seven judges agreed that Mr. Lanocha should be let off lightly. They believed his insistence that he had never heard of the rule prohibiting lawyers from writing themselves or family members into wills—though two other Maryland lawyers had been suspended from the practice of law indefinitely for naming themselves as beneficiaries as recently as 2003. Besides, reasoned the court majority, Mr. Lanocha had told Ms. Straw that she needed independent legal advice before leaving anything to his family, and she had insisted that he prepare the will anyway.
Judge Alan Wilner, one of the seven judges deciding Mr. Lanocha’s fate, would have gone further. He noted that no one had asked Ms. Lanocha-Sisson if she would be willing to disavow any inheritance; he suggested that without that sanction Mr. Lanocha should be indefinitely suspended. Judges Dale Cathell and Lynne Battaglia would have suspended Mr. Lanocha from the practice of law regardless of whether his daughter declined the inheritance.
Mr. Lanocha had a prior record of sorts, having been reprimanded for other violations in 2001. He had also been challenged by the Federal Trade Commission for violation of Fair Debt Collection Practices Act provisions in 1996, and ordered to pay $50,000 in penalties.