The aging American population is increasingly turning to family law attorneys to complete important end-of-life documents like their wills or establish trusts and other financial management vehicles for the future. Many of those attorneys are also paid to manage estates and handle conservator duties.
So, what happens when an attorney doesn't do the job the way that he or she should? A mistake can cost the client his or her entire future. His or her heirs can also be left out in the cold, denied what was rightfully theirs.
Some of the commonly asserted claims of those who feel that family law attorneys have let them down include incorrectly drafted wills, poor advice on how to transfer assets to the next generation, improper disbursement of wealth and the failure to advise a client of tax issues. Some attorneys are even accused of manipulating clients for their own gain, getting them to turn over a portion of their wealth to the attorney for no due reason. In all those cases, clients, heirs and even estate representatives can sometimes exert a claim for professional malpractice against the attorney.
How serious is the problem? While only about 12 percent of attorney malpractice claims in 2015 were related to estates and trusts, that figure is a 75 percent increase over the numbers of claims seen just a few decades ago. A study that looked at legal malpractice cases in four-year increments showed a steady rise in these kinds of claims during each period.
What can a layperson do to protect himself or herself from these kinds of issues? It's a difficult proposition, because a lack of knowledge is what often drives a client to an attorney in the first place. People place their trust in an attorney's hands because they don't know what is and isn't standard procedure.
The best advice is to ask questions about anything that you don't understand and document all your interactions with an attorney. The more carefully you inquire about what something is or why something is being done a certain way, the more likely you'll draw the attorney's attention to any potential problems. Careful documentation of your communications can also be helpful if legal malpractice does occur -- it could go a long way toward proving your case in court and allow you to obtain damages.
Source: Insurance Focus, "Brace for Impact: The Rise in Trusts & Estate Claims Against Attorneys," accessed April 12, 2018