In the popular 2019 movie “Knives Out”, a familiar Hollywood scene occurred: The dramatic reading of a will. A person dies, in this case, crime novelist Harlan Thrombey. Harlan’s surviving family members meet with his estate planning attorney, who then proceeds to read Harlan’s will aloud to the entire family. With predictable Hollywood theatrics, the will contains unexpected distributions that result in much shouting, expletives, and gnashing of teeth. But is that really how it works? Does the lawyer really meet with everyone in the family, read the will aloud, and then discuss the estate’s administration with the entire family?
Potential clients often contact law firms and request an initial “family meeting” to discuss a recent family member’s death. Such meetings are problematic pursuant to the Washington Rules of Professional Conduct [RPCs] governing attorneys’ ethical behavior. In a recent blog post, I described the attorney-client relationship: “Similar to the physician-patient relationship, the core principle for any estate planning attorney is to vigilantly protect her client’s confidentiality. An attorney has an ethical responsibility to preserve the confidentiality of communications between the attorney and her client. This means that the attorney must communicate directly with a client, with no outside interference, [and] describe options to a client.”
In administering an estate, the attorney’s client is not the entire family. Instead, the attorney’s client is generally the person named in the will as the Personal Representative. After a family member dies, it is absolutely appropriate for the named Personal Representative to contact a law firm and request an initial one-on-one consultation with an attorney to discuss initiating probate. Suppose a lawyer meets with the entire family instead of the designated Personal Representative? In that case, that lawyer may be violating RPC 1.6, which requires a lawyer to keep a client’s information in confidence, by discussing confidential information with a client (the Personal Representative) in the presence of third parties (the rest of the family). In addition, other family members may incorrectly believe that, since they met with the estate’s lawyer, that lawyer also represents them as a client. This may create a conflict of interest pursuant to RPC 1.7 such that the attorney may be prevented from representing anyone in administering the estate.
Reading the will in a movie can create an ideal theatrical moment – full of suspense and drama. However, it is just that – theatre. In real life, the whole family can meet to discuss the deceased person’s estate and even read the will if they choose. But that meeting should not involve legal counsel.
This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.