Disclosure of Confidential Information of Personal Representative of an Estate
Opinion rules that the attorney who formerly represented an estate may divulge confidential information relating to the representation of the estate to the substitute personal representative of the estate.
Attorney A was consulted by Widow after her husband's death in an automobile accident. At the time of the consultation, Widow had not qualified as personal representative of her husband's estate. Attorney A advised Widow about the handling of her husband's estate, the estate's possible liability to another person injured in the automobile accident that killed her husband, and how the liability of the estate might affect her and her children's inheritance. Widow qualified as personal representative of the estate and commenced the administration of the estate without the assistance of Attorney A. Before the time for filing claims against the estate expired and before the person injured in the accident filed a claim against the estate, Widow disbursed most of the assets of the estate to herself and her children. Ultimately, Widow was removed as personal representative and Attorney B was appointed in her place. Attorney B is preparing a suit against Widow and the children in which he will seek to restore the assets of the estate. He would like to interview Attorney A about the substance of any consultations Attorney A had with Widow and any of the heirs regarding her duties as personal representative of her husband's estate. Attorney B would also like to see Attorney A's file for Widow. Does Attorney A have a duty of confidentiality to Widow that prohibits him from opening his file to Attorney B and being questioned by Attorney B about the advice he gave Widow with regard to the administration of the estate?
Yes. At the time of her consultation with Attorney A, Widow had not qualified as personal representative. Therefore, Attorney A was not representing the estate or the personal representative in her official capacity. Any disclosure by Attorney A of information gained during his professional relationship with Widow which would result in embarrassment or harm to Widow would be a violation of Attorney A's duty to preserve the information of his client. Rule 4(a).
Would the answer to inquiry #1 be different if Widow sought the legal advice of Attorney A in her official capacity as personal representative of her husband's estate?
Yes. RPC 137 states that "[i]n accepting employment in regard to an estate, an attorney undertakes to represent the personal representative in his or her official capacity and the estate as an entity." If Attorney A was representing Widow in her official capacity as the personal representative of the estate, Attorney B, as the substitute personal representative, may consent to the release of the file by Attorney A and the divulging of confidential communications between Attorney A and Widow. When a lawyer represents a personal representative of an estate in his or her official capacity, the duty of confidentiality is owed to the personal representative acting in his or her official capacity and to the estate itself. Whomever is serving as personal representative of the estate, including a substitute personal representative, may consent to the disclosure of confidential information relating to the representation of the estate and the personal representative.
If Attorney A gave legal advice to Widow both personally, prior to her appointment as personal representative, and, subsequently, as the personal representative of the estate, would Attorney A have a duty of confidentiality prohibiting him from opening the estate file to Attorney B and prohibiting him from divulging his communications with Widow in her capacity as personal representative of the estate?
No. Attorney A may open the estate file to Attorney B and may divulge to Attorney B the substance of his communications with Widow when he was representing Widow in her capacity as personal representative. However, information obtained from Widow during the time that Attorney A represented her in her personal capacity would be subject to the duty of confidentiality. See opinion #2.