A Florida appellate court has reversed a summary judgment in favor of an attorney in a legal malpractice action. In Hodge v. Cichon the beneficiary of a will brought an action against an attorney who represented a court appointed guardian of an individual who later died. Five years before his death, the individual had deeded real property to the beneficiary, and also had signed documents, creating a family trust for tax purposes.
The individual’s son initiated proceedings in probate court seeking a declaration that his father was not competent to create the trust. Prior to a hearing on the issue, the individual executed a will giving his estate to the beneficiary. The probate court ruled that the decedent was partially incompetent, appointed a guardian for him, and ordered that the prior estate plan be reinstated. The individual died two years later, but the attorney representing the court appointed guardian failed to implement the family trust in violation of the probate court’s order.
The beneficiary then sued the attorney for malpractice alleging that the attorney’s misconduct significantly reduced his share of the estate. The attorney successfully moved for summary judgment on the basis that there was no attorney-client relationship, that the family trust was defective, and would not have been allowed by the IRS. The client appealed.
The appeals court reversed and remanded, finding that under Florida law, an intended beneficiary had standing to bring a malpractice claim against an attorney when the client, in this case the guardian, clearly intended to benefit the third party. The court also found that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the IRS would have recognized the family trust.
Decision: Hodge v. Cichon