John G. Farinacci: Cross-Discipline Practice in the Post-Schneider World

John G. Farinacci: Cross-Discipline Practice in the Post-Schneider World

By John G. Farinacci, Esq.

It has long been the rule in New York that the personal representative of an estate could not maintain an action against a decedent's estate planning attorney for legal malpractice because there was no privity between the estate fiduciary and the attorney. Deeb v. Johnson, 170 A.D.2d 865, 566 N.Y.S.2d 688 (3d Dep't 1991) [enhanced version available to subscribers], Viscardi v. Lerner, 125 A.D.2d 662, 510 N.Y.S.2d 183 (2d Dep't 1986) [enhanced version], Rossi v. Boehner, 116 A.D.2d 636, 498 N.Y.S.2d 318 (2d Dep't 1986) [enhanced version]. However, these cases were abrogated by the Court of Appeals in June 2010 when it rendered a decision holding that the privity necessary to support a legal malpractice claim, or a relationship sufficiently approaching privity, exists between the personal representative of an estate and the estate planning attorney. Estate of Schneider v. Finmann, 15 N.Y.3d 306 (2010) [enhanced version / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law].

In the months that have passed since Schneider, there has been a flurry of activity, from written articles to bar association debates, examining the subject of estate planning attorney malpractice and what it means for New York's estate planning bar. I have witnessed topics addressed and debated ranging from the applicability of the statute of limitations, the duties of attorney-custodians of original wills, and the availability of limited letters of administration to an estate beneficiary where the fiduciary will not bring a malpractice action on behalf of an estate - to name just a few.  However, there is one subject that I do not think has been given much attention that deserves careful consideration in our daily practice.

I recently participated in organizing a cross-discipline continuing legal education program with members of the trusts and estate, elder law and tax bars. The purpose of the program was to help attorneys that practice in one or more of those areas to be able to spot potential issues in the other practice areas so as to best serve their clients' interests.

But these practice areas are often at odds with each other. For example, an elder law attorney may give advice and help facilitate lifetime asset transfers as part of a sound Medicaid plan, but those same assets transfers could have adverse estate and capital gains tax implications.

There is not always a clear public perception as to the differences between an estate tax planning attorney, elder law attorney, an attorney that specializes in business succession planning and so on. Some attorneys are well versed in multiple disciplines and some only in one or a few. What is clear is that no one knows everything. The expectations as to your expertise in any given legal practice area may vary from client to client and referral source.

It should have always been a priority to clearly define the limitations and parameters of your retention as an estate planning attorney and to be careful as to how you hold yourself out to the public in order to properly service the clients and manage their expectations. This includes being able to spot potential issues that are outside the scope of day to day practice area and to be sure that the client understands that you are not going to give advice or perform work that is outside the scope of what you do. In such a case, this may also include referring the client to, or recommending that they seek out the advice of someone competent in the potential problem area. However, it would seem all the more important for the estate planning attorney to do these things for their own protection in the post Schneider world as well as the protection of their client.

Mr. Farinacci is a partner in Ruskin Moscou Faltischek's Trusts and Estates Department. He heavily concentrates his practice in trust and estate litigation, having successfully handled numerous contested cases in the New York State Surrogate's Court, Supreme Court, Supreme Court Appellate Division, Court of Appeals and Federal District Court. Mr. Farinacci also represents clients in estate planning, estate administration and guardianship matters.

Prior to joining RMF, Mr. Farinacci was a partner at a Long Island law firm, where he specialized in trust and estate matters. While in law school, Mr. Farinacci interned for the Nassau Surrogate's Court under Judge C. Raymond Radigan.

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