JULY 11, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 26
One principle governing lawyers is obviously and intuitively correct: A lawyer may not prepare a will or trust (or, for that matter, any other document or arrangement) by which a client makes any substantial gift to the lawyer. Similarly, lawyers are precluded from preparing documents giving or leaving anything of value to the lawyer’s close family members, either.
The American Bar Association, in its “Model Rules of Professional Conduct,” codified the principle. Rule 1.8(c) of the Model Rules says:
“A lawyer shall not solicit any substantial gift from a client, including a testamentary gift, or prepare on behalf of a client an instrument giving the lawyer or a person related to the lawyer any substantial gift unless the lawyer or other recipient of the gift is related to the client. For purposes of this paragraph, related persons include a spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent or other relative or individual with whom the lawyer or the client maintains a close, familial relationship.”
That rule has been adopted in 49 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Some of those jurisdictions may have modified the rule slightly, but the basic principle is pretty nearly universal. It also is clearly appropriate.
But lawyer ethics rules are not the same as laws, and it is not that hard to imagine that an ethically-challenged lawyer might be willing to violate the rule — if he or she could still inherit a substantial estate, it might not matter whether the license to practice law is revoked. Most court decisions dealing with lawyers who write themselves into wills (they are blessedly rare) recognize that the document itself should also be found to be invalid, at least to the extent of any gifts to the lawyer or his/her family.
You may have noticed that there is just one U.S. state which has not adopted the ABA’s Rule 1.8. In fact, California has not adopted any of the ABA’s Model Rules. What California has done, though, is to adopt an even stronger law. Under its law governing wills and trusts, any document prepared by anyone in a fiduciary relationship with the signer is presumed to be invalid — and the law is clear that lawyers are fiduciaries. In other words, California’s go-it-alone approach to this issue results in a stronger proscription than in most states.
That provision was put to the test last month in a case involving 74-year-old California lawyer John F. LeBouef, who was accused of having prepared (and possibly forged) a will and trust naming himself as principal beneficiary of a client’s $5 million estate.
LeBouef’s client, himself 73 years old at the time of his death, had been in poor health since the death (seven years before) of his life partner. The client was reported to have serious problems with alcohol, to the point that neighbors reported that he frequently would fall down in his home, howl like a dog, and occasionally soil himself.
The client had two nieces who were probably named as his principal beneficiaries in a will and trust he signed in 2006. “Probably” because, as it turns out, the original documents were lost — in a burglary of the client’s home after his death, in which his prior estate planning documents (and LeBouef’s laptop computer) were among the only items stolen. At trial, the probate court judge found LeBouef’s testimony about the burglary, the preparation of the new documents, and the client’s intentions all unbelievable.
Some part of the judge’s incredulity was related to LeBouef’s prior behavior. It developed that, after he helped an 86-year-old caretaker claim a $2.5 million inheritance from the estate of the man she had cared for, LeBouef’ marred his client (he would have been about 60 at the time) and, ultimately, inherited the bulk of her estate. Meanwhile, another, 90-year-old, client of LeBouef’s had left most of her $1.3 million estate to LeBouef’s life partner (and business partner), Mark Krajewski. LeBouef had prepared the four amendments to that client’s trust, of course.
After the California probate judge invalidated the will and trust naming LeBouef, she also ordered him to pay the client’s nieces over $1.2 million legal fees — those fees and costs were incurred in their successful challenge of the documents prepared by LeBouef. Perhaps the most impressive act of bravado, though, was LeBouef’s final request of the probate court: he asked the court to approve payment of a fee to him for acting as trustee during the litigation, including a separate fee for managing the trust’s real estate (including the decedent’s home, in which LeBouef lived for three years rent-free). The probate judge declined the request.
The California Court of Appeals reviewed the case and, in a strongly-worded decision, approved the probate court’s rulings on every score. In fact, the Court of Appeals directed that a copy of its decision should be sent to the State Bar of California and to the local prosecutor’s office. “We express no opinion on discipline and/or the decision to initiate criminal prosecution,” wrote the Court. Butler v. LeBouef, June 20, 2016.