Phillips v Murtha 2023 NY Slip Op 01767 Decided on April 04, 2023 Appellate Division, First Department demonstrates that several recurring attorney representation scenarios in wills and estates legal malpractice claims will fail for lack of standing. The consistently failing storyline is that an elderly person is brought to an attorney who drafts a will which names the eventual plaintiff as a beneficiary of the will as well as executor of the will. When competing beneficiaries successful contest the will, the losing beneficiary wants to sue the attorney who drafted the will. Problems are whether the estate suffered damages and whether the beneficiary has standing to sue.
“In the context of estate planning malpractice actions, strict privity applies to preclude a third party, such as beneficiaries or prospective beneficiaries like plaintiffs, from asserting a claim against an attorney for professional negligence in the planning of an estate, absent fraud, collusion, malicious acts or other special circumstances (see Estate of Schneider v Finmann, 15 NY3d 306, 308-309 ; Leff v Fulbright & Jaworski, L.L.P., 78 AD3d 531 [1st Dept 2010], lv denied17 NY3d 705 ). While plaintiffs argue their claim against defendant attorneys is couched as one for simple negligence, as opposed to legal malpractice, plaintiffs have not pleaded facts to show that defendant attorneys owed plaintiffs a duty of care in the drafting of their client’s will and trust agreement. The strict privity requirement here protects estate planning attorneys against uncertainty and limitless liability in their practice (see Schneider, 15 NY3d at 310). Thus, plaintiffs’ negligence claim is unavailing for lack of factual allegations to demonstrate that defendants owed plaintiffs a duty.
Plaintiffs have not pleaded sufficient factual allegations in [*2]their amended complaint to indicate that circumstances of fraud, collusion and/or aiding and abetting exist in this case to override the strict privity rule. Plaintiffs have not alleged fraud with requisite specificity as, inter alia, there are no allegations defendants knowingly made material misrepresentations in the will and trust for the purpose of inducing justifiable reliance by their client (since deceased) upon such misrepresentations, and moreover the allegations made do not support favorable inferences in that regard (see Loreley Fin. [Jersey] No. 3 Ltd. v Citigroup Global Mkts. Inc., 119 AD3d 136, 139 [1st Dept 2014]). Here, defendants’ client signed the will and trust agreement, and notwithstanding the alleged diminished capacity which appellants attributed to her advanced age, the allegations do not show that she justifiably relied upon any misrepresentations in the will and trust. Plaintiffs’ claim for aiding and abetting a fiduciary breach is insufficiently alleged as the facts pleaded do not allege defendants breached a fiduciary duty owed to the plaintiffs (see Yuko Ito v Suzuki, 57 AD3d 205, 207 [1st Dept 2008]), or that they have standing to allege a breach of fiduciary duty on behalf of the estate. The relationship between an estate planning attorney and a prospective beneficiary under a will and/or trust does not in and of itself give rise to a fiduciary duty owed by the attorney to the prospective beneficiary (see Mali v De Forest & Duer, 160 AD2d 297 [1st Dept 1990], lv denied 76 NY2d 710 ).
Plaintiffs’ assertion of a claim under Judiciary Law 487 is unavailing because the amended complaint does not allege defendant attorneys were counsel of record in any proceeding to which plaintiffs were a party (see Platt v Berkowitz, 203 AD3d 447 [1st Dept 2022]).”