Eileen Ford of Marks, O’Neill, O’Brien, Doherty & Kelly, P.C. secured summary judgment dismissal, on the merits, of a legal malpractice claim in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.  Plaintiffs asserted the lawyer/client committed legal malpractice during the preparation and execution of a last will and testament of the decedent, naming her grand-daughter as sole beneficiary of her estate, thus negating a prior bequest by decedent to Plaintiffs (son and grandson of decedent) bequeathing them her estate, under a prior will. The alleged damages arose when the grand-daughter violated a court order and expended assets of the estate during the pendency of a will contest matter, not involving the lawyer/client. Lawyer/client was not the estate attorney.

Plaintiffs alleged malpractice because it was in the will contest matter that the decedent, having suffered a medical emergency the night before, lacked mental competency on the day her new last will and testament was executed (lawyer/client, pursuant to statute, affixed testratrix’s signature because she could not raise her arm to sign the document). The Judge in the will contest case, did rule that Plaintiff lacked competence on the day the new will was executed, however, also ruled that decedent was mentally competent when decedent engaged of the lawyer/client and issued directives as to the changes she wanted in the new will. The defense stressed that the individual plaintiffs lacked standing to sue lawyer/client because they were not “direct intended beneficiaries” of the engagement for which the decedent (while mentally competent) engaged his services. Plaintiffs attempted an end run around their lack of standing, by claiming that the “Estate” has a claim of malpractice. However, the malpractice case Judge agreed that since the Estate stepped into the shoes of the decedent, its claims are limited to only what the decedent could make.  Since the decedent was deemed competent on the day she gave lawyer/client instructions to change her will, the Estate had no standing to make a claim that malpractice was committed, because the decedent would not have been able to make such a claim, had she lived, inasmuch as the execution of the will (although later revoked) accomplished the task that the decedent requested.

The defense also stressed, and the court agreed, that the District of Columbia does not recognize the tort of “intentional interference hereith expected inheritance”. Finally, the claim for punitive damages was also challenged, on the basis of collateral estoppel, as the Judge in the will contest case determined that he did not find any collusion or bad motives between the new beneficiary and lawyer/client related to his retention and his preparation of the new will. Other collateral estoppel defenses related to damages were raised in the malpractice case, however, as the Judge agreed with the defense on all of the main claims, as a matter of law, the court did not need to issue a ruling on the other defenses.