Opinion Number: 1988-92
Unclaimed client trust funds - escheat to state
A solo practitioner with an active trust account died. Attorney A was appointed executor and undertook to wind up the practice and to distribute the funds from the trust account. The solo practitioner maintained an accounts ledger of the trust account but the balances did not reconcile with the bank account. After several years A was able to determine the clients who owned the various accounts and appropriate disbursements were made. He was unable, however, to determine the owners of some of the funds or the whereabouts of certain clients. What distribution should A make in order to close the account?
There are two categories of funds in the account. The first category involved those funds that cannot be attributed to a particular client. After a reasonable and good faith effort is made to determine the ownership of the funds, and after holding the funds as long as necessary to assure that no unidentified client could make a successful claim against the account, A may distribute the funds to the solo practitioner's estate. The second category of funds in the account are those that can be attributed to a client but the location of that client is unknown. After making a good faith and reasonable effort to locate the client, A must hold the funds until they are presumed abandoned under state law, at which time he should turn them over to the state.
Attorney A should first make every reasonable effort to ascertain the identity and location of the clients entitled to the funds. This would include publication of a notice in a newspaper of general circulation, not only in the area where the decedent practiced but also in the last known area where the client or clients reside or do business.
Regarding the funds that cannot be attributed to a client or clients, several state ethics committees have held that after reasonable and good faith attempts to ascertain the ownership and after holding the funds long enough to insure that no unidentified client could make a claim against the funds within any applicable statute of limitations, they may be distributed to the attorney's personal account or his estate.
Unidentified funds in a trust account could properly be funds deposited to pay service charges [DR 9-102(A)(1)] or to avoid any possibility of a shortage in the account or fees earned but not withdrawn [DR 9-102(A)(2)].
The Michigan Bar Committee on Professional and Judicial Ethics held that funds that could not be associated with any particular client or file, or were presumed to belong to attorneys formerly with the firm or to be interest earned on an account, after notifying former clients of the existence of the funds and providing them an opportunity to substantiate any claim, could be retained by the attorneys involved [Opinion CI-947 (1983) and CI-752 (1982)].
Similarly, in Virginia, it was held that such unidentifiable funds must be placed in an interest bearing account a sufficient length of time to determine that no successful claim by an unidentified client could be made. If no owners or claims are found, the lawyer may then transfer the funds to his own account [Virginia Opinion 548 (3/1/84)].
In another Virginia Opinion, it was held that unidentifiable funds in a trust account could be distributed to a deceased lawyer's estate or distributed according to law to meet the deceased lawyer's non-trust obligations, provided a good faith effort to determine ownership is made and the funds are retained a sufficient length of time to assure that a successful claim could not be made.
The Alabama Disciplinary Commission addressed a similar question in RO-82-649. In that case there were several thousand dollars in a deceased attorney's trust account that could not be "traced to its rightful owner." The Commission held that:
"Some type of legal proceeding should be instituted whereby notice by publication could be given to potential claimants. Although other proceedings may be available we suggest that the property could be disposed of under the Alabama Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, Section 35-12-20, Code of Alabama, 1975."
In this case the Commission assumed that the funds were client funds and were "not earned attorney's fees which [the attorney] deposited in a trust account pursuant to the provisions of DR 9-102(A) and failed to withdraw therefrom." The opinion then cites an earlier opinion where the client was known but could not be located.
In the case at hand, we make no such assumptions and hold that where it cannot be determined that the funds are client funds by reasonable, diligent, and good faith efforts, including public notice in a newspaper of general circulation and after holding the funds long enough to assure that no successful claim will be filed by an unknown client, the funds may be distributed to the deceased attorney's estate.
The second category of funds in the trust account are those that can be attributed to a client but the whereabouts of the client are unknown. In this situation Attorney A does not have the option of distributing the funds to the deceased attorney's estate because the money clearly does not belong to the deceased attorney. In situations such as this numerous opinions of state bar ethics committees, including the Disciplinary Commission of the Alabama State Bar, have held that the funds must be retained until presumed abandoned under state law at which time the funds must be turned over to the state [Mississippi State Bar Ethics Committee Opinion 104 (6/6/85); State Bar of New Mexico Advisory Opinions Committee, Opinion 1983-3. (7/25/83); North Carolina State Bar Association Ethics Committee Opinion 372 (7/25/85); Michigan Committee on Professional and Judicial Ethics of the State Bar of Michigan, Opinion CI-1144 (4/9/86); Committee on Professional Responsibility of the Vermont Bar Association, Opinion 87-9 (8/87)].
The Office of General Counsel and the Disciplinary Commission have, in a number of opinions, held that where funds in a trust account may be attributed to a client but the location of the client is not known, that some type of legal proceedings should be instituted whereby notice by publication could be given to the owner of the deposited funds. The opinions also hold that although other proceedings may be available the property could be disposed of under the Alabama Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, §35-12-20, Code of Alabama, 1975, [RO-82-649, RO-83-14, RO-84-26, RO-84-48, RO-83-146, and RO-84-106]. In situations where the client is known but cannot be found the money clearly does not belong to the attorney. Consequently, the lawyer has no alternative but to retain the funds on the client's behalf at least until such time as the funds may be considered legally abandoned.
Consequently, in the case at hand, we hold that lawyer A must make every reasonable effort to locate the client, including public notices in a newspaper of general circulation in the area where the deceased lawyer practiced as well as in the area where the client maintained his last known address or business. If these efforts are unsuccessful then Attorney A must hold the funds until such time as they may be considered abandoned under the Alabama Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, Chapter 12, Article II of Title 35, Code of Alabama, 1975.