The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently limited the circumstances under which an attorney might serve as personal representative of an estate. In In Re the Estate of Ann H. McMaster Dewey, No. 2016AP865, 2017 WL 1497548 (Wis. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2017), a decedent nominated her estate planning attorney, Robert Wilmot, as her successor personal representative. Upon the decedent’s death, her first-choice personal representative declined to serve in that role. Wilmot filed an application for informal administration and sought to be appointed as personal representative.
The decedent’s children objected, arguing that Wilmot was an unsuitable personal representative and therefore that his nomination should be disallowed under Wis. Stat. §856.23(1)(e)’s catchall provision, “for good cause shown.” The trial court found Wilmot unsuitable and appointed the decedent’s daughter to serve as personal representative. Wilmot appealed.
In affirming the trial court’s determination that Wilmot was unsuitable, the Court focused on the lack of personal relationship between Wilmot and the decedent. The Court noted that before their initial estate planning consultation, Wilmot did not have knowledge of the decedent’s finances or her children.
Interestingly, the Court of Appeals also wrote that the Will was “silent” as to the decedent’s intent as to her choice of personal representative. The Court characterized the section of the Will naming Wilmot as personal representative as a mere recitation. The Court’s analysis is likely premised upon existing cases in which a testator included specific language confirming the intent to name the drafting attorney as personal representative. But, the Court’s language raises an interesting question: How can a Will that expressly nominates a personal representative—indeed, a first choice and a successor—be said to be silent as to the decedent’s intention in nominating a personal representative? Must the Will include a rationale for any term that the testator wants enforced? Is a Will that does not explain the decedent’s intent in distributing the assets “silent” as to the dispositive provisions? What more does a decedent need to do to ensure that his or her intent will be executed as expressed on any issue in a Will, other than execute the Will as required by Wisconsin law?
The Court ultimately concluded that Wilmot’s nomination as successor personal representative might have been valid if the Will had contained language specifically stating that the nomination was intentional and did not result from Wilmot’s solicitation and there was evidence of a more significant relationship between Wilmot and the decedent prior to Wilmot’s drafting of the Will. The Court’s decision neither found nor implied any wrongdoing on Wilmot’s part, but it essentially held that he, as the testator’s lawyer, bore the burden of preventing even the appearance that he solicited further work for himself. According to the Court, he could have prevented that appearance by having the testator put in her Will that there was no solicitation.
The practical effect of this decision is unclear. While the Court seeks to prevent solicitation on the part of nefarious drafting attorneys, this ruling may not achieve that result. After all, the ruling basically requires an additional legal disclaimer to make effective a Will provision that is not all that uncommon. And many clients express their testamentary wishes to their lawyers but then trust that the legal documents properly reflect those wishes. A client who executes a Will without reading or agreeing to the nominated personal representative is not likely to raise concerns about additional legalese in the Will confirming that choice.
Following this case, it appears that a drafting attorney’s nomination to serve as personal representative will survive a challenge only where the attorney and decedent had more than the typical attorney-client relationship and the Will itself contains a clear expression that the attorney did not solicit the nomination.