Legal Malpractice Claim Against Scrivener

Mecca v. Levine, No. A-0548-17T3, 2018 WL 6711343 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Dec. 21, 2018).

This legal malpractice action arose out of the drafting of a will. The Appellate Division addressed whether a ruling in a prior litigation that established the testator’s intent estopped any claim that the defendant attorney breached his duty in preparing the will.

The defendant attorney performed estate planning for the decedent, including a trust. Several years after the decedent’s death, a family dispute arose, and one daughter sued, seeking an accounting under the trust.  The clause of the will at the heart of the daughter’s dispute is the provision requiring an informal accounting to income beneficiaries and vested remainder beneficiaries. Id. at *3.

Specifically, the clause of the will provides:

The Trustee shall be excused from filing any account with any court; however, the Trustee shall render an annual (or more frequent) account and may, at any other time, including at the time of the death, resignation, or removal of any Trustee, render an intermediate account of the Trustee’s administration to such of the then current income beneficiaries and vested remaindermen who are of sound mind and not minors at the time of such accounting. The written approval of such accounting by all of such beneficiaries and remaindermen shall bind all persons then having or thereafter acquiring or claiming any interest in any trust…

Id. at *3-4.

The family argued that the daughter was not a “vested remainderman”, as her share in the corpus depended on her surviving her mother, and income remaining in the trusts after her mother’s death. Id. at *4.  The trial court assessed the decedent’s intent and found the daughter was a vested remainderman and entitled to an accounting.  The judge found the clear language of the provision in the will established the daughter as vested remainderman, and in that capacity, the daughter was entitled to an accounting. Id. at *5.

That first litigation settled with the daughter receiving $2.2 million.  The family contended that with counsel fees they incurred $4 million in damages. Id. at *6.  The family then instituted a second lawsuit asserting legal malpractice against the defendant attorney for negligence in drafting the decedent’s estate plan.  The family argued that the issue was whether the defendant drafted the estate plan in accordance with the decedent’s wishes.  The trial court agreed with the defendant that collateral estoppel barred the malpractice action and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant.  The trial court had determined the decedent’s intent and that determination was grounded in the evidence, including the deposition testimony of the decedent’s wife.  Therefore, the trial court decision foreclosed any argument that the defendant attorney did not draft the documents in accord with the decedent’s wishes.

On appeal, the family argued the main issue was whether the will was drafted in accordance with the decedent’s wishes, not whether the plain language of the will entitled the daughter to request an accounting, and therefore, it was a different issue. Id. *7.

The Appellate Division explained the doctrine of collateral estoppel and stated:

For collateral estoppel to apply, the party asserting the bar must show:

(1) the issue to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the prior proceeding;

(2) the issue was actually litigated in the prior proceeding;

(3) the court in the prior proceeding issued a final judgment on the merits;

(4) the determination of the issue was essential to the prior judgment; and

(5) the party against whom the doctrine is asserted was a party to or in privity with a party to the earlier proceeding.

Id. at *8 (quoting In re Estate of Dawson, 136 N.J. 1, 20 (1994)).

The appeals court found the trial court correctly analyzed the requirements of collateral estoppel and determined that the central issue of the malpractice claim had already been fully and fairly litigated. Id. at *8.  Accordingly, summary judgment was affirmed.