Settlement Agreement Bars Claims Against Attorney Who Drafted Will

Elder Law Answers Case Summary.An Illinois appellate court rules that individuals cannot bring a claim that requires a court to find a will invalid after agreeing to a settlement that affirms its validity. In Starck v. Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr (Ill. App. Ct., No. 1-21-0680, December 30, 2022).

Walter Starck, the testator, had three children: Laurin, Brandon, and Jeffrey Starck. As his former wife, Shirley Starck, had a gambling problem, they divorced, but he continued to allow her to live with him and gave her a stipend that supported her financially. As Mr. Walter Starck was dying, his ex-wife was his medical agent, while his daughter Ms. Laurin Strack was his financial agent.

Although he had previously executed a will and had indicated that he intended to devise his estate to his three children equally, Mr. Walter Starck created a new will and revoked his old one with the help of his attorney, Mr. Jap P. Tarshis. To draft the document, Mr. Tarshis spoke with Mrs. Starck on the phone, believing Mr. Walter Starck was participating in the conversation. At the time, Ms. Strack was on a business trip. Mr. Walter Starck’s new will disinherited his children and created a trust that benefited his ex-wife.

When the will went through probate, the surviving children and the estate representative challenged it, ultimately reaching a favorable settlement. Yet after the settlement agreement, they sued Mr. Tarshis and his law firm. They alleged that Mr. Tarshis had a duty to Ms. Starck as her father’s financial agent and therefore committed legal malpractice by not including her in the drafting. The circuit court determined the attorney retainer agreement showed no relationship existed. The lower court also rejected their assertion that the lawyer interfered with their inheritances, as their settlement barred further review of the will under the Probate Act.

On consideration, the court of appeals agrees with the circuit court. Under the Probate Act, individuals only have six months after a will enters probate to contest it. In Robinson v. First State Bank of Monticello, 97 Ill. 2d 174 (1983), the court held that it would not consider a tort action for intentional interference with an inheritance once the interested parties had employed an attorney, decided not to contest the will, or entered into a settlement. Letting six months elapse certifies the will’s validity, and a will challenge under the Probate Act is exclusive. When the challengers settled the case, they acknowledged that the will was valid. If the court found their arguments persuasive, it would have to determine that undue influence occurred and that the will was invalid.

Since the children and estate representative cannot invalidate the will after agreeing to the settlement, the court of appeals affirms the lower court’s decision to reject the case.

Read the entire opinion here.