Heir Cannot Sue Decedent's Attorney for Divorce Malpractice

Elder Law Answers case summary.The Supreme Court of Wyoming holds that an adult child does not have standing to sue his father’s divorce attorney for malpractice after the father died before the divorce concluded because nothing showed that the adult child was an intended beneficiary of the divorce. In Schlegel v. Barney & Graham and Hughes (Wyo. No. S-22-0293, Oct 3, 2023).

Represented by Shelby Hughes, Michael Schlegel initiated divorce proceedings against his wife, Charlene Schlegel. At the divorce, Ms. Hughes advised the court that they needed to resolve ownership of their vehicles in order to split up the property. The district court said that Ms. Hughes could submit a proposed divorce decree excluding the vehicles, and the court would enter it and address the vehicles separately. When Ms. Hughes attempted to get her client to provide the initial property disclosures for the divorce degree, Mr. Schlegel said he was working on it but never got it back to her. She also gave a settlement offer to her client’s wife, who never responded. Before the divorce was finalized, Mr. Schlegel died intestate.

Unpersuaded by Ms. Hughes’ argument that the court had granted a divorce at the hearing, the district court dismissed the divorce with prejudice. Since Mr. Schlegel died without a will and the divorce was not completed, his wife inherited 50 percent of his estate under Wyoming’s intestacy statute. His son, Mr. Taran Schlegel, received 25 percent. The remaining 25 percent went to the children of a son who predeceased the decedent.

Dissatisfied with his inheritance, Mr. Taran Schlegel brought a legal malpractice claim against his father’s divorce lawyer. He alleged that Ms. Hughes’ delay in submitting a divorce decree to the court was negligent and that he had standing to sue her because the delay reduced his inheritance.

The district court granted the attorney’s motion for summary judgment because it saw no evidence that the decedent intended his son to benefit financially from the divorce. The son appealed.

An attorney may owe a nonclient a duty of care in limited circumstances. Per In the Matter of the Estate of Drwenski, the court should apply a balancing test addressing the following inquiries: First, did the client want the legal work to benefit the nonclient? Second, how foreseeable was the harm? Third, how certain is the court that the attorney harmed the client? Fourth, how closely did the attorney’s conduct relate to the harm? Fifth, would finding fault place an undue burden of liability on the legal profession? Sixth, would the decision prevent future harm?

The Supreme Court only addresses the first question since it resolves the issue. In Drwenski, a man died as his divorce was pending. His will benefited his daughter, but his wife’s elective share reduced his daughter’s inheritance. When the daughter sued the attorney for malpractice in not completing the divorce before her father’s death, the court held that the attorney did not have a duty of care for the nonclient daughter.

In this case, Ms. Hughes had no duty of care to her client’s son because no evidence suggests that the decedent was using his divorce as an estate planning tool to benefit his son. While Mr. Taran Schlegel’s testimony suggests he may have been an intended beneficiary of his father’s estate, it does not show that his father meant the divorce to benefit his son directly.

Since no evidence supports the conclusion that the pending divorce was an estate planning tool to benefit the decedent’s son, the Supreme Court of Wyoming affirms the district court’s decision.

Read the full opinion.