Florida Personal Representatives and Trustees Statutorily Protected by Attorney-Client Privilege

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The attorney-client privilege is the oldest confidential communication privilege in the Florida common law and is codified by statute and contained in the Florida Evidence Code, section 90.502, Florida Statutes (2011).  The attorney-client privilege protects the contents of confidential communications made in the rendition of legal services and has as its purpose to “encourage full and frank communication between attorneys and their clients and thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and administration of justice.” American Tobacco v. State, 697 So.2d 1249, 1252 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997) (quoting Haines v. Liggett Group, Inc., 975 F.2d 81 (3d Cir.1992)). 

But until recently, only the Florida common law extended the attorney-client privilege to Florida personal representatives and Florida trustees involved in probate and trust litigation. This meant that personal representatives and trustees would have to look to Florida case law to determine whether communications with their attorneys were privileged and protected from beneficiaries challenging their actions. Florida common law recognizes that a Florida personal representative or a Florida trustee generally holds the attorney-client privilege, but also directs that when a beneficiary attempts to gain access to privileged information during litigation concerning the probate or trust, the court must decide whose interests the attorney really represents — the fiduciary’s or the beneficiary’s. See Jacob v. Barton, 877 So. 2d 935 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004) (recognizing that beneficiary might be the “real party” in interest for whom attorney performs the work thus entitling beneficiary in Florida probate or trust litigation to otherwise privileged information).

As of June 21, 2011, Florida trustees and Florida personal representatives have the added protection of Fla. Stat. § 90.5021, which addresses the “fiduciary attorney-client privilege” and explicitly extends the attorney-client privilege to a personal representative and trustee in probate and trust proceedings. Fla. Stat. § 90.5021 states that:

(1)   For the purpose of this section, a client acts as a fiduciary when serving as a personal representative or a trustee as defined in ss. 731.201 and 736.0103

(2) A communication between a lawyer and a client acting as a fiduciary is privileged and protected from disclosure under s. 90.502 to the same extent as if the client were not acting as a fiduciary. In applying s. 90.502 to a communication under this section, only the person or entity acting as a fiduciary is considered a client of the lawyer.

So, while a beneficiary can still attempt to obtain communications between a Florida personal representative or a Florida trustee and their attorney during probate or trust litigation, Florida personal representatives and trustees have the added protection of section 90.5021 to rely on to protect privileged communications with their attorneys.

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