Legal malpractice issues, and definitely attorney-client privilege issues arise in Estates. They can come up prior to death, by virtue of the death or afterwards, but in each instance there is a question of the relationship of the estate and the attorney, and who is now the “client” in terms of rights and privileges between the client (Deceased and the Estate) and the attorney.
Matter of Thomas 2019 NY Slip Op 08293 Decided on November 15, 2019 Appellate Division, Fourth Department DeJoseph, J. is an example of the attorney-client privilege issue.
“In a prior appeal, we remitted the matter to Surrogate’s Court for further proceedings on the issue of ownership of certain stock in New York State Fence Company (NYSFC) after concluding that “[w]here, as here, an asset is not included in the inventory of the estate based upon respondent fiduciary’s assertion that he is the owner of the asset, it is respondent’s burden to show a legal and sufficient reason for withholding’ the asset from the estate” (id. at 1765). Upon remittal, the Surrogate held a nonjury trial during which respondent, in his capacity as executor, [*2]waived decedents’ attorney-client privilege, and decedents’ former counsel thereafter testified that she did not include a specific bequest with respect to Anthony’s NYSFC shares in his most recent will because Anthony had already transferred those shares to respondent. After the trial, the Surrogate concluded that respondent had in fact satisfied his burden and specifically established that the shares of NYSFC were sold and transferred to respondent prior to Anthony’s death. Petitioners appeal, and we affirm.
The primary issue on appeal is one of first impression in this Department and requires us to determine whether an executor has the authority to waive a decedent’s attorney-client privilege. The Second and Third Departments have answered that question in the affirmative, and we agree.
In Mayorga v Tate (302 AD2d 11 [2d Dept 2002]), the assignee of the executor of the decedent’s estate brought a legal malpractice action against the decedent’s attorney and sought to obtain pretrial disclosure “of the file that [the attorney] maintained in connection with” his representation of the decedent (id. at 12). The attorney refused to disclose the file, claiming that it was protected by the attorney-client privilege (id.). The trial court held that the assignee could waive the privilege and that the attorney could not invoke the privilege to avoid producing the requested discovery (id.). The Second Department affirmed, stating:
“We conclude by returning to the basic thesis that it makes no sense to prohibit an executor from waiving the attorney-client privilege of his or her decedent, where such prohibition operates to the detriment of the decedent’s estate, and to the benefit of an alleged tortfeasor against whom the estate possesses a cause of action . . . That an executor . . . may exercise authority over all the interests of the estate left by the [decedent], and yet may not incidentally have the right, in the interest of that estate, to waive the [attorney client] privilege . . . would seem too inconsistent to be maintained under any system of law . . . We therefore conclude that, under the terms of CPLR 4503, just as under the common law, an executor may waive the attorney-client privilege of his or her decedent” (id. at 18-19 [internal quotation marks omitted]).
The Third Department endorsed that same view in Matter of Johnson (7 AD3d 959, 960-961 [3d Dept 2004], lv denied 3 NY3d 606 ).”