When Michigan attorney Mark Papazian inherited $14 million of a $17 million fortune from his late client and best friend, he had to be thinking that life was good. Putting ourselves in Papazian's shoes, who wouldn't want such a payload for a lifetime of friendship and services rendered? His stroke of luck, however, ended up generating a rash of probate litigation.
Papazian's friend and client, 59-year-old Bobby Mardigian, died of lung cancer and without children or direct heirs in 2012. And according to his will, Mardigian left the great majority of his high-value estate to none other than his attorney, Papazian. But there emerged a serious setback to this cozy arrangement: state rules of professional conduct hold that lawyers are not allowed to prepare a will for a client that would include a "substantial gift" for the administering attorney. The danger of undue influence is a primary factor for why such regulations are in place across the nation.
Papazian's claim to his deceased friend's will was blown out of the water by a lower court in 2013, which assigned the inheritance to Mardigian's brother Edward and his two children. Yet Papazian was far from finished in this legal contest, bringing it to the Michigan Appeals Court. Last week the Appeals Court ruled in a 2-1 decision that Papazian was indeed acting unethically when he drafted Mardigian's will, a testamentary document that just happened to bequeath him $14 million. Yet all hope was not lost, however: the court also stipulated that Papazian could have a right to the money - if he can prove he wasn't exercising undue influence.
The Appeals Court's majority opinion sends the case back down to probate litigation and leaves Papazian with an opening:
"It is presumed he exerted undue influence," but "case law and existing statutes afford (Papazian) the opportunity to attempt to prove by competent evidence that the presumption of undue influence should be set aside."
So Papazian was both professionally and ethically in the wrong when he drafted a will for a client (his friend) who would leave him with a hefty reward, if his story is to be believed, for 30 years of friendship. At the same time, two out of the three Appeals Court judges think he still has a chance to show that Mardigian's intent was his own and not clouded by clouded by undue influence. Under such circumstances undue influence must be presumed, and it's now Papazian's duty to prove in court that he is just a lucky dog, after all.