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Mary Killins Soignier v. W. Kent Fletcher

June 2, 2011

MARY KILLINS SOIGNIER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
W. KENT FLETCHER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



Appeal from the district court of the Fifth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Cassia County. Hon. Michael R. Crabtree, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: W. Jones, Justice

2011 Opinion No. 69

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment of the district court is affirmed in part and reversed in part. Attorney fees and costs on appeal are not awarded to either party

I. NATURE OF THE CASE

Mary K. Soignier appeals the district court's decision to grant summary judgment to W. Kent Fletcher, an attorney, on her claim for legal malpractice. She asserts that Fletcher negligently failed to ensure that a will he prepared conveyed to her the proceeds of a trust of which the decedent was a beneficiary until shortly before the decedent's death. Since Fletcher adequately effectuated the testator's intent as expressed in the will itself, the district court was correct to grant him summary judgment on the malpractice claim. However, this Court vacates the district court's grant of attorney fees under I.C. § 12-120(3), as the malpractice claim in this case does not stem from a commercial transaction.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Attorney W. Kent Fletcher represented the decedent, Zachary A. Cowan, for several years until Cowan's death in October of 2006. During his lifetime, Cowan was the beneficiary of a trust that his mother provided for him, known as the Leonarda A. Cowan Trust (the "Cowan Trust"). The terms of the Cowan Trust provided that the trust would persist until Cowan reached age fifty, at which time it was to terminate and most of its assets were to be distributed to Cowan. Cowan's fiftieth birthday was in 2003, and on March 4, 2005, he signed a Final Release and Discharge agreement in which he terminated his interest in the trust. Cowan did not have any beneficial interests in any other trusts.

Shortly after terminating his interest in the Cowan Trust, Cowan instructed Fletcher to prepare his Last Will and Testament. The will provided that all of Cowan's remaining beneficial interests in any trusts be devised to Mary Killins Soignier, Appellant. It also referred to a written list of items and intended recipients that was never located. The American Cancer Society was named as the residual devisee for all of Cowan's other property.

Soignier filed a claim against Cowan's estate for the proceeds from the Cowan Trust, which the magistrate rejected. The magistrate found that, because the trust had terminated, the will unambiguously conveyed any assets that remained in Cowan's estate to the American Cancer Society.

Believing that Cowan intended to leave the trust assets to her, Soignier asserted this claim for legal malpractice against Fletcher in 2009. The district court granted summary judgment to Fletcher, ruling that there was no genuine issue of fact as to whether the will frustrated Cowan's intent. The court also granted Fletcher's request for attorney fees under I.C. § 12-120(3).

Soignier appealed to this Court, contending that Fletcher negligently failed to carry out Cowan's wishes by inaccurately describing his trust assets. She further contends that it was improper to award fees under I.C. § 12-120(3) because she was never engaged in a commercial transaction with Fletcher. Fletcher responds that the will was not deficient in giving effect to Cowan's intent to leave any remaining trust interests to Soignier and, additionally, that the fee award was correct because Soignier's claim arises directly from a transaction for legal services between Fletcher and Cowan.

III. ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Whether the district court correctly granted summary judgment to Fletcher on Soignier's claim for legal malpractice by ...


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