ABA News . . .

ABA releases book about heirs’ property 

A new book from the American Bar Association, “Heirs’ Property and the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act: Challenges, Solutions, and Historic Reform,” provides a comprehensive, yet easily understandable overview of a widespread and problematic form of property ownership in the United States known as heirs’ property, that typically arises due to a lack of estate planning.

There has been growing awareness about various heirs’ property problems, including massive, decades-long, involuntary land loss. This book will increase that awareness among lawyers, the public and policymakers. Just as important, the book offers practical solutions for those seeking to address a variety of heirs’ property problems.

“Heirs’ Property and the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act: Challenges, Solutions, and Historic Reform” is available as a paperback and eBook for $79.95. To order, visit www.shopaba.org.

ABA issues ethics opinion to guide handling of prepaid fees for individual clients

The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility recently released a formal opinion that examines a lawyer’s ethical obligations for fees paid for legal work to be performed by the lawyer in the future.

Formal Opinion 505 points to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct — and particularly applications of model rules related to fees and safekeeping of others property — to explain how lawyers should handle advance fees paid by individual clients, usually for a single legal matter that will not recur on a regular basis. These matters could include divorce, defense of criminal charges or civil matters not handled on a contingent fee basis.

The opinion notes that a retainer is often conflated with an advance fee, and it says in a footnote the former should not be construed as a “payment for the performance of services, but rather is compensation for the lawyer’s promise of availability … (and) is not an advance deposit against future legal services.”

“Given the rarity and unusual nature of a general retainer, and the fact that very few clients would actually need or benefit from one, the nature of the fee and lawyer’s obligations and client’s benefits under such an agreement must be explained clearly and in detail,” the opinion said.

Formal Opinion 505 was blunt in defining the problem. “These terms are most often used in an attempt to make an advance fee nonrefundable,” it said, before adding the model rules “do not allow a lawyer to sidestep the ethical obligation to safeguard client funds with an act of legerdemain: characterizing an advance as ‘nonrefundable’ and/or ‘earned upon receipt.’ This approach does not withstand even superficial scrutiny. A lawyer may not charge an unreasonable fee.”

The formal opinion also provides three hypothetical situations, including scenarios involving a divorce case, to examine situations when a lawyer might tell a client that the prepaid fee was nonrefundable. In most cases, the opinion suggests, the lawyer would be acting contrary to the model rules.

“We offer the following suggestions in relation to the matters addressed in this opinion. Use plain language,” it said. “Thus, instead of ‘retainer’ say ‘advance’ and explain that it is a ‘deposit for fees.’ Explain that the sum deposited will be applied to the balance owed for work on the matter, and how and when this will happen.”

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility periodically issues ethics opinions to guide lawyers, courts and the public in interpreting and applying ABA model ethics rules to specific issues of legal practice, client-lawyer relationships and judicial behavior. 

Formal Opinion 505 and other recent ABA ethics opinions are available at www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/ethics_opinions/?login.