Friday, February 28, 2014
In the February 7 disbarment of Kansas attorney Daniel R. Beck, the disciplinary record describes a cascading series of events (including the fact that Beck continued to practice law while on administrative suspension). The heart of the case is the attorney's role in execution of "updated" estate planning documents.
During the disciplinary proceedings, Beck was found to have directed a man to forge the signature of the man's mother, a 90-year old woman in a nursing home, on key documents. Further, the attorney forged the name of his own secretary as the notary on the documents that included a family trust, a general durable power of attorney, a living will, a last will and testament, a health care power of attorney, an assignment of personal property, and an authorization to release health care information.
The attorney had drafted the original estate plan for the woman and her then-husband. In preparing and executing the "updated" documents, he was interacting solely with the son, although the record does not suggest the son was seeking or receiving any "benefit" from the changes.
In attempting to avoid major sanctions, the attorney argued that some of the updates, such as a "new" power of attorney and healthcare power of attorney, were necessary "because in his experience sometimes hospitals and financial institutions would not honor those documents if the documents are from a long time ago." At the same time he argued the updated documents made no substantive changes to the existing plan. No harm, no foul as a defense? The Kansas Supreme Court rejected the argument that the attorney's actions caused no harm to the woman in the nursing home, who died a few months after her signatures were forged:
"Respondent [Beck] admits L.H. was vulnerable but asserts that we must construe the word 'victim' to require a showing that the attorney's conduct 'actually exposed] [a] vulnerable client to real and significant harm,' and argues such as showing was not made in this case.
We need not decide whether the term 'vulnerable victim' requires that an attorney expose a client to actual harm because we conclude the record contains adequate evidence of injury, including $2,800 L.H.'s trust paid to respondent for legal work L.H. never authorized, approved, or used....
Moreover, since respondent never spoke to L.H., he can only speculate as to whether the documents he drafted could comport with L.H.'s current wishes. Put simply, an attorney injures, or at least potentially injures, a client when he or she takes legal action on the client's behalf without ever speaking with the client or ensuring that the proposed action is in accord with the client's wishes."
Hat tip to ElderLawGuy Jeff Marshall for this interesting opinion.