Friday, July 26, 2013

What Happens When My Client Passes Away?

Contrary to what many people think, I do not automatically continue as the attorney for the trust.  The trustee may retain me as the attorney, but they are not obligated to do so.  The trustee may retain another qualified attorney, particularly if the trustee already has an estate lawyer.  Or the trustee may feel that they do not need legal assistance.

When beneficiaries and family members or others call me to "get a copy of the trust", I have to refuse unless they are the trustee or I have express instructions from my client to provide information to them.   I will direct them to the trustee, who under California law is obligated to contact the beneficiaries and provide a specific notice to them under California Probate Code Section 16061.7.

My duty is to my client, and to my client alone.  Once my client passes away, I am client-less.  Everything the client tells me is attorney-client privilege or confidential as an attorney-client communication.  

Thus, I cannot disclose the contents of the trust or provide copies to anyone my client has not given instructions concerning, including spouses and others.

Because I am serious about my duties of confidentiality, this sometimes creates awkward situations, and often family do not understand why I just can't give them a copy of the trust.

The bottom line is that the trustee is the one with the authority and duty to carry out the client's instructions.