If you are a client of a lawyer who dies, what happens to your file and the money that you may have in the attorney’s client trust account? Many attorneys keep their client’s original estate planning documents in their fireproof safe at their office. Maybe you are in the middle of having your matter handled and the attorney suddenly passes away. What do you do?
Currently what happens is that if a lawyer dies or becomes incapacitated and hasn’t made any arrangement for someone else to take over his or her practice, the State Bar can seek an order from the Superior Court to take over the lawyer’s files and return the files to the clients along with any funds that were being held in the clients’ trust account.
The State Bar has recently drafted a sample agreement available to all lawyers which allows a lawyer to designate a successor and sets out the responsibilities of the primary attorney and the successor attorney to take over the practice. The agreement provides that the successor attorney will go to court to be designated as the successor who can take over the practice. The responsibilities include the power to open mail, become a signatory on bank accounts, notify clients, transfer files, handle client trust accounts, and sell the practice. The agreement also provides that clients be notified by mail that a successor attorney has been designated.
The California Bar says that the agreement is aimed at solo practitioners who have not planned for the unforseen. The sample agreement is an effort to protect both clients and the law practice of the lawyer who becomes disabled or has died. Now attorneys can incorporate the succession of their law practice either in their own estate planning documents or utilize these agreements provided by the State Bar.