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Because legal malpractice claims survive in favor of the decedent's estate, the estate has a justiciable interest in the controversy sufficient to confer standing. A decedent's estate, however is not a legal entity and may not properly sue or be sued as such. Rather, certain individuals have the capacity to bring a claim on the estate's behalf. Generally, only the estate's personal representative has the capacity to bring a survival claim.
David Terk hired the Attorneys to prepare his will. After his death, the Terks became the joint, independent executors of their father's estate. As executors, the Terks sued the Attorneys for legal malpractice, alleging that the Attorneys were negligent in drafting their father's will and in advising him on asset management. They claim the estate incurred over $ 1, 500, 000 in tax liability that could have been avoided by competent estate planning. The Attorneys moved for summary judgment on the ground that estate planners owe no duty to the personal representatives of a deceased client's estate. The trial court granted the motion, and the court of appeals affirmed the judgment. According to the court of appeals, the beneficiaries cannot maintain a malpractice cause of action against a decedent's estate-planning attorney because the attorney lacks privity with non-client beneficiaries and therefore owed them no duty.
Could the plaintiff executors maintain a malpractice cause of action against the decedent's estate-planning attorney?
The court of appeals' judgment was reversed and remanded to the trial court. The supreme court noted that if the executors' legal malpractice claim was brought on behalf of the decedent's estate and survived the decedent, they could maintain a suit against the attorneys. Legal malpractice claims alleging pure economic loss survived in favor of a deceased client's estate, because such claims were necessarily limited to recovery for property damage. While the primary damages at issue--increased tax liability--did not occur until after the decedent's death, the lawyer's alleged negligence occurred while the decedent was alive. If the injury occurred during the client's lifetime, a claim for estate-planning malpractice survived the client's death. The executors were independent executors of their father's estate and could bring a claim on behalf of the estate in their capacity as personal representatives. Limiting estate-planning malpractice suits to those brought on behalf of a client's estate by a personal representative would prevent the client from losing control of the attorney-client relationship because the interests of the estate were compatible with the client's interests.