The usual rule for claimants against estates is that they must perfect their claim by filing suit within one year of the decedent’s date of death. In fact, most personal representatives of estates wait until a year has expired to completely close out the estate and distribute all of assets to beneficiaries.
Some may now start wating longer. In the recently-decided case of Greenbaum v. Holian (Middlesex Superior Court, CA No. MICV2013-03793-A, March 26, 2014),the court declined to throw out a suit filed after the one-year statute of limitations. Max Greenbaum sued the estate of his former attorney, Stanley Charmoy, for legal malpractice in December 2012, almost two and a half years after his death in July 2010. Greenbaum sought to bring his case under an exception to the one-year time limit under Uniform Probate Code, G.L. chapter 190B, section 3-803(e), which permits late-filed claims when “justice and equity require it” and the claimant “is not chargeable with culpable neglect.”
In this case, the court determines that Greenbaum only learned of the potential legal malpractice in September 2011, more than a year after Charmoy’s death, so he was not guilty of culpable neglect by not bringing suit during that time. The court also found that the estate was not harmed by the delay in terms of its ability to defend against the suit.
Interestingly, the court feels that it does not need to address the question as to whether Greenbaum was guilty of culpable neglect in waiting more than a year after learning of the problem to bring suit. The statute, it reasons, only applies to the question of whether the one-year limit may be waived:
The statute is satisfied so long as there is no culpable neglect by the creditor “in not prosecuting his claim within the time so limited . . . I find there was no culpable neglect within the one-year after Mr. Charmoy’s death. Additional delay after one-year from death in filing for equitable relief under sec. 3-803(e) is not considered in the sec. 3-803(e) inquiry. . . .
Apparently, once the statute of limitations is waived, absent a finding of prejudice to the estate, suit can be brought at any time. This may make closure for estates very difficult. How can personal representatives be certain that no claims will be brought after all of the estate assets have been distributed? If claims are brought and the personal representative can’t retrieve funds from beneficiaries — perhaps because they’ve already been spent — will the personal representative be liable to claimant? How will the personal representative pay legal fees to defend against the suit? Will this have to come from her own funds?
Of course, most estates are well-settled within a year of death and the personal representative should have knowledge of potential claims. While neither the statute nor the judge say so, perhaps this case stands for the proposition that legal malpractice claims have a longer statute of limitations against estates. This may also apply to claims against other professionals, such physicians and accountants.
Margolis & Bloom, LLP, practices estate, long-term care and special needs planning in Boston, Dedham, Framingham and Woburn with a strong commitment to client service. If you have questions about these or other legal matters, do not hesitate to contact us by e-mail by clicking here or by calling us at 617.267.9700.