Author: Anne Rudolph

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Does the Attorney-Client Privilege Apply After the Death of a Client?

What Happens To Privilege When a Client Dies?

The Basics of Attorney-Client Privilege

Pursuant to Business and Professions Code section 6068, subd. (e), an attorney must maintain inviolate a client’s confidences.  The only exception in that statute is that an attorney may, but is not required to, reveal confidential information to the extent that the attorney reasonably believes the disclosure is necessary to prevent a criminal act that the attorney reasonably believes is likely to result in death of, or substantial bodily harm to, an individual.

But, the Evidence Code and applicable case law provide that the rules applicable to disclosure of a client’s confidences change after the client dies.

Evidence Code section 955 provides that an attorney may only claim the attorney-client privilege on behalf of a client if the attorney is authorized to claim the privilege under Evidence Code section 954(c).

The Importance of Holder of the Privilege

Evidence Code section 954(c) provides in relevant part: …”[the lawyer] may not claim the privilege if there is no holder of the privilege in existence…”  (Emphasis added.)

Evidence Code section 953 defines “holder of the privilege” and provides in relevant part: “…‘holder of the [attorney-client] privilege’ means:

(c) The personal representative of the client if the client is dead…”

This subsection expressly limits the holder of the attorney-client privilege to the personal representative, i.e. an executor, administrator or special administrator appointed by the court.  Simply being nominated in a will does not make one a “personal representative.”

Statement from the California Supreme Court on Privilege After Death

The California Supreme Court, in analyzing Evidence Code sections 953, subdivision (c) and 954, stated: “Taken together, these two sections unambiguously provide that only a personal representative may claim the attorney-client privilege in the case of a deceased client.”  (HLC Properties Ltd. v. Super. Ct. (2005) 35 Cal.4th 54, 65.)  The Court went on to conclude that when there is no personal representative the attorney-client privilege terminates.  (Id. at 66.)

In many cases today there will not be a court-appointed personal representative because prior to death the decedent transferred all of her assets to a trust.  And, a trustee is not a personal representative.  (Prob. Code §58.)  Accordingly, in situations where there is no personal representative, then there is no holder of the privilege and the attorney cannot assert the attorney-client privilege on behalf of a deceased client.

Exceptions to Attorney-Client Privilege Without a Personal Representative

An attorney should also be aware that even when the attorney-client privilege is not terminated because there is a personal representative, the Evidence Code provides exceptions to the attorney-client privilege in several situations, primarily involving a decedent’s estate planning, which require the attorney to reveal the client’s confidential information.  (See Evid. Code §§956-962.)

Evidence Code section 957 provides:

“There is no privilege under this article as to a communication relevant to an issue between parties all of whom claim through a deceased client, regardless of whether the claims are by testate or intestate succession, nonprobate transfer, or inter vivos transaction.”

Evidence Code section 960 provides:

“There is no privilege under this article as to a communication relevant to an issue concerning the intention of a client, now deceased, with respect to a deed of conveyance, will, or other writing, executed by the client, purporting to affect an interest in property.”

In Summary, Careful Evaluation is Required

The above authorities show that after the death of a client an attorney must carefully evaluate whether she is still required to maintain a client’s confidences.

 

Can a third party pay a client’s fees?

In certain situations, attorneys may be asked to allow a third party to pay

There are various situations that may arise where an attorney may be asked to allow a third party to pay a client’s attorney’s fees.  Examples include a parent paying for a criminal defense attorney or a divorce attorney for a child.  When a third party is paying the bills it is particularly important to comply with the applicable rules and not to confuse the client with the person paying the bills or to include the third party in confidential client communications.

Rule 3-310(F) provides that an attorney may not accept payment for representing a client from anybody other than the client unless the attorney complies with certain requirements.

No interference is allowed

First, there must be no interference with the attorney’s independent professional judgment or with the attorney-client relationship.  This means that just because a person is paying the bills she doesn’t get to direct the representation.

Confidentiality must be maintained

Second, you must strictly maintain the client’s confidential information as required under Business and Professions Code section 6068, subdivision (e).  Often a person paying the bill, particularly a parent or other close relative who is genuinely interested in helping the client, will want to be informed about what is going on in the case and offer input on the attorney’s strategy.  Also, they may want details about what services they are paying for.

However, just like in any other matter, unless the client specifically authorizes the attorney to discuss confidential or privileged information, the attorney cannot disclose anything to the third party.  An attorney should also be careful to make sure the client doesn’t feel obligated to share confidential information with the third party simply because that person is paying the bills.

Written consent is required

Third, the attorney must obtain the written consent of the client before the attorney may accept payment from a third party.  A good practice is to discuss payment terms directly in the engagement agreement and confirm that though a third party will be paying the bills, she shall have no authority to direct the representation or have access to confidential client information or privileged communications.

The attorney will also want to have the third party sign an agreement to confirm responsibility to pay the client’s bills.  The attorney should consider whether to have the third party sign the same engagement agreement as the client or to enter into a separate agreement with the third party.  In order to preserve any privilege as to the client’s engagement agreement, the attorney should do a separate agreement with the third party.  The agreement should also confirm that the payor is not the client, shall have no authority to direct the representation or have access to confidential client information and privileged communications.

A related issue is who is entitled to a refund of any funds remaining at the conclusion of representation, the client or the person who paid?  COPRAC Formal Opinion 2013-187 addressed this question and concluded that the attorney must return the balance to the third-party payor rather than the client, unless the engagement agreement with the client provides otherwise.  Accordingly, the attorney should also clarify return of funds in the client engagement agreement.