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Judges disagree on when duty to exercise ordinary care extends to beneficiaries

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The Indiana Court of Appeals was divided Tuesday on whether a legal malpractice lawsuit filed by third-party beneficiaries of a will against their relative’s attorney should proceed beyond summary judgment. The case hinged on the interpretation of the “known” requirement outlined in Walker v. Lawson.

Mary Linder, through a recommendation by her alma mater Marian College, hired Berton O’Bryan to change her will. Linder told O’Bryan she had a list of items she wanted to leave to various individuals, but the will did not name those people. Linder later filled in a form that O’Bryan gave her that spelled out what her relatives would receive, but it was not dated or signed.

After her death, the probate court investigated the list’s validity, but the relatives in question settled with Linder’s estate and agreed the list was invalid. Those relatives then filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against O’Bryan. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of O’Bryan on his argument he owed the relatives no duty because there’s no evidence that he had actual knowledge they were on the list in question or that they were the intended beneficiaries.

In  Martha Ferguson, Anthony Schmitt, Rebecca Schmitt, Mary Meadows, et al. v. Berton O'Bryan, 49A02-1211-CT-917, the judges had to decide whether O’Bryan’s duty to exercise ordinary care and skill in the preparation of the will extended to the relatives.  The judges cited Walker,  526 N.E.2d 968, 968 (Ind. 1988), in support of their rulings.

“Relatives argue for purposes of the ‘know’ or ‘known’ elements, under Walker v. Lawson, it was enough that Mr. O’Bryan knew that [Linder] wanted to name specific people.  We find this argument persuasive,” Judges Terry Crone and Chief Judge Margret Robb ruled in reversing summary judgment for O’Bryan.  “Article II of Linder’s will conclusively establishes that O’Bryan knew that she intended to benefit third parties, whom she would list on a separate form that he provided to her. To hold that O’Bryan did not owe the Relatives a duty in this situation would immunize and thus encourage even more egregious acts of malpractice, to the detriment of innocent third-party beneficiaries.”

In his dissent, Judge Ezra Friedlander pointed out that the relatives were not named in the will, but just on the list, and Linder could have added a potentially limitless number of unknown individuals to the list.

“Under these circumstances, the rationale underlying the exception for known beneficiaries disappears, and imposing a duty would expose the drafting attorney to precisely the type of unlimited liability the privity rule and the exception set forth in Walker v. Lawson were designed to prevent. Accordingly, I do not believe the Relatives fall within the category of known third parties contemplated by our Supreme Court in Walker v. Lawson,” Friedlander wrote.

“Accordingly, I would hold, and indeed we have always held, that in order to qualify as a known third party, an intended beneficiary must be known and identified at the time the will is drafted. Because the list on which the Relatives were identified was not created until after the will was drafted, they clearly do not fall within this category.”
 

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  1. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  2. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  3. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  4. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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