Linking Trust and Business Accounts
Opinion rules that an attorney cannot permit the bank to link her trust and business accounts for the purpose of determining interest earned or charges assessed if such an arrangement causes the attorney to use client funds from the trust account to offset service charges assessed on the business account.
Attorney A maintains a trust account and a business account with Sunshine Bank. Attorney A has been a participant in IOLTA. Over the last several months, however, Attorney A's account has been incurring substantial charges (over $400 in the last year).
After repeated inquiries, Attorney A discovered that her business account and trust account were "linked" for the purposes of determining interest earned or charges assessed. Both accounts are subject to a charge per deposit or check, and interest accrues on daily balances such that a substantial balance in the account should offset the check and deposit charges.
Since Attorney A had repeatedly instructed the bank not to debit the trust account for charges, intending to avoid charges for new checks, etc., the bank had linked the two accounts so that the charges from the trust account were assessed against the business account. Of course, being a member of IOLTA, the interest on the trust account balance, which would otherwise have offset the charges, was sent to IOLTA. In effect, Attorney A was paying for contributions to IOLTA. Being deprived of the offsetting interest on the trust account, the numerous checks she wrote for real estate conveyances created a considerable debit.
At this point, the bank has changed both accounts to commercial accounts which do not draw interest, but the balances in the accounts create "credits" which offset the charges per check or deposit. Any negative balance on the trust account is shifted over to the business account.
Does this situation create any ethical problems? Neither account will ever yield a credit in the form of interest income, and hopefully the ongoing balances will offset the debit charges such that they will usually be "free" accounts.
Yes. Under Rules 10.1 and 10.3, client funds in a trust account may not be used to pay bank service charges or fees of the bank because such funds are the sole property of the client and cannot benefit the attorney. Rules 10.1 and 10.3 do permit the payment of bank service charges and fees of the bank from interest earned on client funds deposited in the lawyer's trust account. The new arrangement established by Attorney A's bank could create ethical problems if the credits and service charges to the trust and business accounts were not accounted for independently. Since the trust and business accounts are "linked" for the purposes of determining interest earned or charges assessed, it would be impossible for one to separate out the specific amount of interest earned or charges assessed for either account. If for a particular statement period the trust account earned more "credits" than it was assessed charges, while the business account was assessed more service charges than it earned "credits", the trust account "credits" could offset the service charges assessed on the business account. Rule 10.1 does not permit the lawyer to use client funds from the trust account ("credits" from the trust account) for the lawyer's personal benefit (the offset of service charges assessed on the business account).