Two threshold issues in legal malpractice, which are not mirrored in other areas of the law are standing and privity. While intertwined, they are not merely two names for the same thing. Illustrated by Matter of Benson 2019 NY Slip Op 51331(U) Decided on August 12, 2019
Surrogate’s Court, Albany County Pettit, J. only certain individuals may sue an attorney for legal malpractice. In estate (death) settings the privity problem is this: decedent hired the attorney to do estate planning. Decedent is dead. No one else has privity to sue the attorney for negligent estate planning. Estate of Schneider v. Finmann dealt with this issue. Here is a further refinement.
“Before this Court is a motion by respondent Weitz & Luxenberg, P.C. (hereinafter respondent), pursuant to CPLR 1003 for an order dropping Robert Thomas Benson (hereinafter Benson) as a party to the trial of this proceeding and precluding him from participating as a party on the ground that he lacks privity to maintain a cause of action against respondent. Benson has opposed the motion and it is now submitted for decision.”:
“Even if respondent had not waived the argument that Benson lacks standing, the Court would not be persuaded. While it is generally true that “a third party, without privity, cannot maintain a claim against an attorney in professional negligence, ‘absent fraud, collusion, malicious acts or other special circumstances'” (Estate of Schneider v Finmann, 15 NY3d 306, 308-309 , quoting Estate of Spivey v Pulley, 138 AD2d 563, 564 [2d Dept 1988]), the Court of Appeals recognized that such a rule “leaves [a decedent’s] estate with no recourse against an attorney who planned the estate negligently” and whose negligent actions or inactions affected the estate (Estate of Schneider v Finmann, 15 NY3d at 309). Accordingly, the Court established an exception to the rule for personal representatives of an estate, finding that such persons have privity, or a relationship sufficiently approaching privity, with the estate planning attorney (see id.). The Court reaffirmed that “strict privity remains a bar against beneficiaries’ and other third-party individuals’ estate planning malpractice claims absent fraud or other circumstances.” (id. at 310). Here, Benson is participating in this proceeding as a court-appointed fiduciary, and not as a beneficiary of the estate.
This Court finds that Benson, in his role as a co-administrator of the estate, has a relationship sufficiently approaching privity with respondent, counsel for the initial estate administrator, to maintain a claim against respondent for professional malpractice it may have committed with respect to the administration of this estate (cf. Estate of Schneider v Finmann, 15 NY3d at 209). Any remaining contentions, to the extent not specifically addressed, have been considered and determined to lack merit. “