One of the hardest parts of an estate planning attorney’s jobs is managing the death of a client. Estate planning attorneys are highly skilled at creating plans, while clients are living and at administering the plans after their client passes. However, most attorneys become friendly with their clients, and they do grieve when clients pass.
Attorneys can provide the best counsel to their clients, when they are completely honest and upfront with them, explains the article “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies” from LimaOhio.com. While there are some things the attorney doesn’t need to know—like the client’s neighbor’s recent divorce—the more information a client provides their attorney, the better the attorney can help the client and their family.
To encourage a high degree of honesty, there are ethics rules that attorneys are required to follow, including the well-known doctrine of attorney-client privilege.
The attorney-client privilege requires that attorneys keep any confidences and secrets from their clients to themselves. This includes sensitive topics about the clients which the attorney learns from someone other than their client. In other words, the attorney may not share any secrets from the client and about the client.
The attorney-client privilege is designed to protect all aspects of the client’s life, even those parts they may not be proud of.
In some cases, the client’s very identity needs to be kept confidential. If a client wishes to pass an asset on to another person but does not want that person to know who their benefactor was, that secret must not be revealed. If a client has won a multimillion-dollar lottery and wishes to remain private, the attorney is required to keep their identity secret.
This attorney-client privilege applies to the staff in the attorney’s practice also. Something shared with an attorney’s paralegal or secretary must remain confidential, as something that was told directly to the attorney.
To strengthen this privilege further, the attorney-client privilege survives the client’s death. When a client passes, the attorney may not share those secrets.
There are a few exceptions to the rule of the attorney-client privilege that survive a client’s death. Attorneys may discuss their client’s competency to sign documents. The executor of a deceased client’s estate or the spouse of a deceased client has the right to waive this privilege. However, if the client’s secret concerns their spouse or the executor, the attorney may not share that secret in order to allow the executor or spouse to waive that privilege.
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Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 3, 2020) “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies”