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When Barbara Blaisdell died in March 1996 at the age of 92, her will named her son, Lyle Thompson, as her personal representative. It was his job to make sure his mother’s wishes were carried out and her estate handled properly. To do that, Thompson, a Miami certified public accountant, turned to longtime family attorney Paul D. Barns Jr. for advice. But what Thompson got, according to his Miami attorney Warren Trazenfeld, was very little help and a whole lot of legal troubles. “Instead of guiding the client in terms of his responsibilities, he failed to give him any advice. My client did the best he could on his own and it turned out to be wrong,” said Trazenfeld, who in late October filed a legal malpractice lawsuit against Barns on behalf of Thompson. The suit accuses Barns of “carelessly and negligently” advising Thompson on issues relating to estate, inheritance and federal income taxes and the payment of debts. The mistakes, he claims, cost Thompson more than $1 million. “Unfortunately, everything he did was contrary to what he should have done,” said Trazenfeld. Thompson was out of the country and unavailable for comment. Barns, who has been practicing law since 1948, countered by claiming Thompson ignored his advice. “We will be asking the judge to specify what he is talking about,” said Barns, before cutting an interview short with a quick “Thank you.” The case illustrates the need for clients to exercise caution when selecting an attorney and for attorneys to ensure that they not only provide the proper legal advice, but that their clients follow it. Thompson’s mistakes landed him in probate court where family members said they believed he was mishandling the estate. Specifically, they alleged that he failed to collect all debts due the estate, failed to require that claims be filed before creditors were paid, failed to document expenditures and transfers of estate assets, and failed to make required tax payments. During a hearing in 1998, Barns was asked if he advised Thompson that he could pay his mother’s debts without filing a claim against the estate. Barns said that wasn’t his advice but that he did fail to tell Thompson to get a claim filed for every debt he paid. Trazenfeld cites several other instances in which Barns told the court that he either didn’t advise his client or that he didn’t recall giving him the wrong advice. Trazenfeld said that Barns told his client to handle the money the way Thompson thought would be appropriate. “He proceeded in good faith, based on what he thought his obligations were.” But the probate judge didn’t see it that way, finding that Thompson was involved in “various transactions which involved conflicts of interest and self-dealing.” As a result, he required Thompson to repay his mother’s estate more than $1 million. On July 26, Judge Sidney Shapiro’s ruling was upheld by the 3rd District Court of Appeal. “As a result, the money my client would otherwise have received from his mother’s estate, he is not going to get,” Trazenfeld said. “He will walk away with zero, which was not the decedent’s intention.” Trazenfeld, who dedicates more than half his practice to suing other lawyers, says he believes that Thompson’s troubles could have easily been prevented had Barns, at a minimum, told his client what he could and could not do under probate code. Although he hopes by winning the suit to recover some of the money that Thompson lost, Trazenfeld said he doesn’t believe that the lawyer’s malpractice insurance will cover the entire loss. “This is a perfect example of the horribles that can result if a lawyer has no insurance or is under-insured,” he said.

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