RI Supreme Court Provides Long Awaited Guidance on Trust Attorneys' Duty to Beneficiaries

In December of 2015, the Rhode Island Supreme Court provided guidance on the duties an attorney advising a trustee owes to the trust's beneficiaries. Audette v. Poulin, 127 A.3d 908 (R.I. 2015).

Audette, the beneficiary of a trust, brought claims of negligence and breach of fiduciary duty against the attorney who advised the trustee. Apparently, though the trust allowed Audette a life estate in certain property, the trustee objected to Audette living in the property. Audette also wanted his elderly parents to live with him, but the trustee objected to this as well. The trustee thereafter sought legal advice from an attorney who indicated that the terms of the trust did not permit Audette's parents to live at the property. Despite the trustee's objection, Audette and his parents moved into the property. The trustee later commenced an action to evict Audette and his parents. The attorney who had advised the trustee also represented the trustee in connection with the eviction suit.

Audette then filed a complaint against the trustee, the successor trustee (who had at that time assumed trusteeship) and the trust. Later, he added claims against the attorney for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty (which the court interpreted as essentially claims for legal malpractice). The attorney filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that he did not owe Audette a duty of care while he represented the trustee. The attorney's motion was granted and Audette appealed.

On appeal, Audette urged the Rhode Island Supreme Court to extend its ruling in Credit Union Central Falls v. Groff, 966 A.2d 1262, 1272 (R.I. 2009), which recognized that the liability of an attorney may extend to third-party beneficiaries of the attorney-client relationship, to allow a cause of action to proceed against an attorney of a fiduciary where there exists an identity of interest between trustee and beneficiary. The Court held that, even if it were to accept Audette's suggestion that Groff be extended, in this particular case, the relationship between Audette and the trustee was so tainted with bitterness that it would have been difficult for the attorney to represent both the trustee and Audette simultaneously. Thus, there was not sufficient "identity of interest" to justify extending Groff to the instant case, and dismissal of Audette's claims against the attorney was affirmed.

If you have any questions about this matter or other trust and estate issues, please contact Attorney Bernard A. Jackvony at 401-824-5100 or email bjackvony@pldolaw.com. We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

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