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Case Highlights Need to Use an Estate Planning Expert
If you are going to draw up a will or estate plan, it pays to have it done by an attorney who is well-versed in this area of the law. A recent Washington, D.C., court decision is a reminder of this: the court found that an attorney who drafted a will as a favor to friends, despite having no estate planning experience, incompetently represented the person making the will and engaged in a conflict of interest. In re Long (D.C., No. 04-BG-883, July 20, 2006).
Attorney J. Sinclair Long was friends with an elderly woman, Lessie Lowery, and her relative and caretaker, Wilbert Harris. In 1996, Mr. Harris asked Attorney Long to draft a will in which Mrs. Lowery would leave all her assets to Mr. Harris. Attorney Long agreed, even though his professional legal career was in government service and criminal law and he had no experience in estate planning.
Attorney Long used a "form will," changed it somewhat, and gave it to Mrs. Lowery to sign. He did not ask her whether there were any other relatives who might be upset by her testamentary plans. While the will was being prepared, Attorney Long was also assisting Mr. Harris with an Adult Protective Services inquiry into whether Mrs. Lowery was being exploited and neglected. As part of his assistance to Mr. Harris, Attorney Long drafted a power of attorney for Mrs. Lowery to sign giving Mr. Harris full control of her assets.
Following Mrs. Lowery's death, several nieces and nephews contested the will that Attorney Long had drafted. The case was eventually settled, with Mr. Harris receiving only 40 percent of the estate and Mrs. Lowery's other heirs receiving the rest.
Attorney Long also paid a price. A board that oversees the conduct of lawyers in the District of Columbia found that he had incompetently represented Mrs. Lowery and had engaged in a conflict of interest by also representing Mr. Harris. The board recommended that Attorney Long be suspended from the practice of law for thirty days. Noting that "Long's foray into estate planning represented a one-shot event of a personal nature" that is unlikely to happen again, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals did not suspend Attorney Long but rather placed him on probation.
To download the full text of this decision in PDF format, go to: https://www.dcappeals.gov/dccourts/appeals/pdf/04-BG-883.PDF.
(If you do not have the free PDF reader installed on your computer, download it here.)