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A Better Partnership
October 12, 2015

COA: Estate planning documents that name the drafting attorney as a beneficiary are not per se invalid

The Michigan Court of Appeals held in In re Mardigian Estate, No. 319023, that a will and a trust that devised gifts to the drafting attorney and his family were not per se invalid.  Rather, the proponents of the documents must overcome the presumption of undue influence arising from the attorney-client relationship.
In 2010, the decedent, Robert D. Mardigian, executed an amended trust prepared by his attorney Mark S. Papazian, which left the majority of the decedent’s estate to Papazian and his children.  In 2011, the decedent executed a will with similar provisions that Papazian also prepared.  After the decedent’s death, Papazian and his children sought to introduce the will and trust into probate; however, several members of the decedent’s family moved for partial summary disposition on the ground that the gifts contained in these documents were against public policy pursuant to MRPC 1.8(c).  The probate court granted the motion, and Papazian appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed the probate court, concluding that based on the Michigan Supreme Court’s holding in In re Powers Estate, 375 Mich 150; 134 NW2d 148 (1965), a document devising the majority of an estate to the drafting attorney’s family and naming the attorney as an additional beneficiary is not per se invalid, but rather, is subject to an undue influence evaluation.  The court concluded that because Papazian, as the drafting attorney, was the decedent’s fiduciary, Papazian would need to overcome the presumption of undue influence arising from this attorney-client relationship.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
Judge Servitto dissented on the basis that Powers was decided before the enactment of the current MRPC, which specifically prohibits Papazian’s conduct.  Thus, Judge Servitto opined that the trust and the will were void as against public policy.

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