February 03, 2017 -
Expanded Liability for Estate Planning Professionals? Superior Court decision in Hanna v. Williams opens new litigation avenue for disgruntled heirs
In denying a motion to dismiss in the case of Hanna v. Williams, the Business Litigation Session of the Superior Court has decided that settlement of a contested estate in the Probate and Family Court does not necessarily bar a subsequent suit for the tort of intentional interference with inheritance. The decision expands the ability of slighted heirs to recover for their alleged losses as a result of an unfavorable devise—even where questions remain unresolved as to the validity of a testamentary instrument. This includes recovery not only against other beneficiaries, but against third party professionals involved in the planning—such as lawyers and financial advisors who are the defendants in Hanna v. Williams.
Estate planning professionals, especially lawyers, to date have been insulated from most claims brought by beneficiaries, who have been uniformly unsuccessful in persuading the Massachusetts courts to find attorney-client relationships between testator’s lawyers and beneficiaries, or to imply a duty by the testator’s lawyer to the beneficiary as a non-client. Fraud has been the notable exception, and now the Superior Court has expanded such liability to the similar tort of intentional interference with inheritance, which, like fraud, also requires knowing wrongdoing. Professionals involved in the planning process should take note of this expanded risk and should seek to be included as released parties in settlement agreements executed in Probate and Family Court.
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