JANUARY 3, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 1
Lawyers, of course, grapple with ethical issues constantly. Elder law attorneys see particular ethical issues recur frequently. Sometimes the lawyer’s eagerness to accomplish the client’s wishes can cloud the lawyer’s ethical judgment. Sometimes the lawyer’s fascination with what might be done can even gallop ahead of the client’s wishes.
None of that is terribly profound or original. Last month, however, we were reminded of how easy it is to get enamored of a particular legal stratagem even though it may not be appropriate in a given case. The notion surfaced in the form of a Minnesota disciplinary proceeding involving attorney Donald W. Fett.
Mr. Fett was consulted by a man (we’ll call him Richard here, just to give him a name) whose brother (let’s call him Martin) was failing. Martin had moved into a nursing home, where he was likely to spend the rest of his life. Martin was unmarried, had no children, and was worth a little more than $600,000.
Martin had already signed a power of attorney naming Richard as his agent. Minnesota law provides a simplified form for powers of attorney, and it has a space where the signer can indicate whether his agent will have the authority to make gifts, including to himself. Martin had checked the line to give Richard the power to make gifts of Martin’s property, but not to Richard himself.
Mr. Fett knew that Martin’s money would be used up in relatively short order if it had to be spent on his nursing home care. Richard had told him that Martin would not want that to happen if it could be avoided, and Mr. Fett could see a way to allow at least a portion of Martin’s money to be protected. In a letter to Richard, and in several follow-up communications, he outlined his plan.
Basically, Mr. Fett suggested that Richard could make a gift of nearly all of Martin’s money, leaving him less than $3,000 (the asset limit in Minnesota for Medicaid assistance with long-term care — note that the limit is even lower in most states). That would make Martin ineligible for Medicaid assistance, but only for a limited time. The money that Richard had given away could be given back over the next couple of years, and then the ineligibility period would expire and Richard could keep the remaining money aside until after Martin’s death. That way at least a portion of his assets could go to the people he had named in his will — including Richard, his other siblings, and some charities.
The fly in the ointment for Mr. Fett’s advice: Martin’s power of attorney had expressly prohibited gifts to Richard himself. In order for the plan to work, though, Richard would have to be confident that Martin’s money would be used to benefit Martin during the ineligibility period. It was a conundrum.
Mr. Fett’s proposed solution was to have Richard liquidate all of Martin’s investments, transfer them to a bank account in Richard’s and Martin’s names as joint owners, and then withdraw them from the bank into his own name. That way, he apparently reasoned, Richard wouldn’t be using the power of attorney in a way that was prohibited — he would instead be using general rules governing joint accounts.
Richard was apparently suspicious of Mr. Fett’s advice, and eventually he consulted another attorney. That resulted in a complaint to the Minnesota disciplinary commission, the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. After hearings the Office recommended that Mr. Fett be publicly reprimanded and placed on probation for a year.
The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed, and upheld both the discipline and the sanction. The Court’s opinion takes a dim view of Mr. Fett’s argument that he was not really recommending a course of action in violation of the limitation in the power of attorney. The Court notes that even if Richard could have used the joint tenancy account to circumvent the limitations of his brother’s power of attorney, Mr. Fett’s correspondence with his client failed to explain the distinction in sufficient detail to allow Richard to make an informed decision about how to act.
The Court notes that Mr. Fett’s failure to give his client complete information could have subjected Richard to serious problems. He might be held liable to return all of Martin’s money, and perhaps even triple the amount transferred. He could even be criminally charged. Mr. Fett gave him none of that information. His failure to fully inform his client was also a failure to provide competent representation, and a violation of the ethics rules for lawyers.
Mr. Fett had been a lawyer for over thirty years, and had limited his practice to estate planning and elder law matters for about six years prior to his contact with Richard. Because of that experience in the practice, and particularly in elder law, the Court determined that the sanction could be higher than would otherwise be implemented. Mr. Fett also had a history of disciplinary actions, having appeared before the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility five times over two decades.
The Court also considered mitigating factors such as lack of harm to either Richard or Martin (Mr. Fett’s advice was not followed) and lack of improper motive or harmful intent on Mr. Fett’s behalf. Those were not sufficient to offset the recommendation for a public reprimand, however. In Re Petition for Disciplinary Action Against Fett, November 24, 2010.
Is there a larger message in Mr. Fett’s disciplinary proceeding? We think there is, and it is this: just because a legal strategy might work, it does not follow that it must be implemented, or even that it is a good strategy. Careful consideration of all the negatives is important, and complete information should be shared with the client.