In order for a will to be probated after someone’s death, a Personal Representative must be appointed by the court. In order for a trust to be administered, a Trustee must be appointed pursuant to the terms of the trust. The PR or Trustee then distributes the estate among the intended beneficiaries through a process known as estate administration. Typically, the PR or Trustee will hire a lawyer to assist with the estate administration. During the estate administration, this “estate” lawyer will need to be in contact with the beneficiaries. It is not uncommon for the beneficiaries to believe that the estate lawyer represents them and their interest in receiving their share of the estate.
Recently, an unpublished federal appellate decision reiterated that the estate lawyer represents ONLY the PR or Trustee, NOT the BENEFICIARIES. The estate lawyer owes a fiduciary duty to the client, and only the PR or Trustee is considered the client. Florida Statutes provide that the lawyer-client privilege, which protects communication between the lawyer and the trustee, is not extended to the beneficiaries.
If you are the beneficiary of an estate, you likely received a letter from the estate lawyer that said (or something similar):
I am required by Rule 4-1.7 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern the conduct of the members of The Florida Bar, to be certain that you understand that my client in this matter is the personal representative. Although I will be advising the personal representative regarding duties and obligations owed to you personally as a beneficiary of this estate, it is important for you to understand that I am not your attorney nor the attorney for any beneficiary of this estate.
This does not affect any rights you may have as an intended beneficiary, and the estate must still be administered properly. However, you should not expect that the estate lawyer is looking out for the interest of anyone but his client, the PR or Trustee.