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Rule 1.15 - Comment to All Subparts


[1]  The purpose of a lawyer's trust account or fiduciary account is to segregate the funds belonging to others from those belonging to the lawyer. Money received by a lawyer while providing legal services or otherwise serving as a fiduciary should never be used for personal purposes. Failure to place the funds of others in a trust or fiduciary account can subject the funds to claims of the lawyer's creditors or place the funds in the lawyer's estate in the event of the lawyer's death or disability.

Property Subject to these Rules

[2] Any property belonging to a client or other person or entity that is received by or placed under the control of a lawyer in connection with the lawyer's furnishing of legal services or professional fiduciary services must be handled and maintained in accordance with this Rule 1.15. The minimum records to be maintained for accounts in banks differ from the minimum records to be maintained for accounts in other financial institutions (where permitted), to accommodate brokerage accounts and other accounts with differing reporting practices.

Client Property

[3] Every lawyer who receives funds belonging to a client must maintain a trust account. The general rule is that every receipt of money from a client or for a client, which will be used or delivered on the client's behalf, is held in trust and should be placed in the trust account. All client money received by a lawyer, except that to which the lawyer is immediately entitled, must be deposited in a trust account, including funds for payment of future fees and expenses. Client funds must be promptly deposited into the trust account. Client funds must be deposited in a general trust account if there is no duty to invest on behalf of the client. Generally speaking, if a reasonably prudent person would conclude that the funds in question, either because they are nominal in amount or are to be held for a short time, could probably not earn sufficient interest to justify the cost of investing, the funds should be deposited in the general trust account. In determining whether there is a duty to invest, a lawyer shall exercise his or her professional judgment in good faith and shall consider the following:

a) The amount of the funds to be deposited;

b) The expected duration of the deposit, including the likelihood of delay in the matter for which the funds are held;

c) The rates of interest or yield at financial institutions where the funds are to be deposited;

d) The cost of establishing and administering dedicated accounts for the client's benefit, including the service charges, the costs of the lawyer's services, and the costs of preparing any tax reports required for income accruing to the client's benefit;

e) The capability of financial institutions, lawyers, or law firms to calculate and pay income to individual clients;

f) Any other circumstances that affect the ability of the client's funds to earn a net return for the client.

When regularly reviewing the trust accounts, the lawyer shall determine whether changed circumstances require further action with respect to the funds of any client. The determination of whether a client's funds are nominal or short-term shall rest in the sound judgment of the lawyer or law firm. No lawyer shall be charged with an ethical impropriety or breach of professional conduct based on the good faith exercise of such judgment

[4] A law firm with offices in another state may send a North Carolina client's funds to a firm office in another state for centralized processing provided, however, the funds are promptly deposited into a trust account with a bank that has branch offices in North Carolina, and further provided, the funds are transported and held in a safe place until deposited into the trust account. If this procedure is followed, client consent to the transfer of the funds to an out-of-state office of the firm is not required. However, all such client funds are subject to the requirements of these rules. Funds delivered to the lawyer by the client for payment of future fees or expenses should never be used by the lawyer for personal purposes or subjected to the potential claims of the lawyer's creditors.

[5] This rule does not prohibit a lawyer who receives an instrument belonging wholly to a client or a third party from delivering the instrument to the appropriate recipient without first depositing the instrument in the lawyer's trust account.

Property from Professional Fiduciary Service

[6] The phrase "professional fiduciary service," as used in this rule, is service by a lawyer in any one of the various fiduciary roles undertaken by a lawyer that is not, of itself, the practice of law, but is frequently undertaken in conjunction with the practice of law. This includes service as a trustee, guardian, personal representative of an estate, attorney-in-fact, and escrow agent, as well as service in other fiduciary roles "customary to the practice of law."

[7] Property held by a lawyer performing a professional fiduciary service must also be segregated from the lawyer's personal property, properly labeled, and maintained in accordance with the applicable provisions of this rule.

[8] When property is entrusted to a lawyer in connection with a lawyer's representation of a client, this rule applies whether or not the lawyer is compensated for the representation. However, the rule does not apply to property received in connection with a lawyer's uncompensated service as a fiduciary such as a trustee or personal representative of an estate. (Of course, the lawyer's conduct may be governed by the law applicable to fiduciary obligations in general, including a fiduciary's obligation to keep the principal's funds or property separate from the fiduciary's personal funds or property, to avoid self-dealing, and to account for the funds or property accurately and promptly).

[9] Compensation distinguishes professional fiduciary service from a fiduciary role that a lawyer undertakes as a family responsibility, as a courtesy to friends, or for charitable, religious or civic purposes. As used in this rule, "compensated services" means services for which the lawyer obtains or expects to obtain money or any other valuable consideration. The term does not refer to or include reimbursement for actual out-of-pocket expenses.

Property Excluded from Coverage of Rules

[10] This rule also does not apply when a lawyer is handling money for a business or for a religious, civic, or charitable organization as an officer, employee, or other official regardless of whether the lawyer is compensated for this service. Handling funds while serving in one of these roles does not constitute "professional fiduciary service," and such service is not "customary to the practice of law."

Burden of Proof

[11] When a lawyer is entrusted with property belonging to others and does not comply with these rules, the burden of proof is on the lawyer to establish the capacity in which the lawyer holds the funds and to demonstrate why these rules should not apply.

Prepaid Legal Fees

[12] Whether a fee that is prepaid by the client should be placed in the trust account depends upon the fee arrangement with the client. A retainer fee in its truest sense is a payment by the client for the reservation of the exclusive services of the lawyer, which is not used to pay for the legal services provided by the lawyer and, by agreement of the parties, is nonrefundable upon discharge of the lawyer. It is a payment to which the lawyer is immediately entitled and, therefore, should not be placed in the trust account. A "retainer," which is actually a deposit by the client of an advance payment of a fee to be billed on an hourly or some other basis, is not a payment to which the lawyer is immediately entitled. This is really a security deposit and should be placed in the trust account. As the lawyer earns the fee or bills against the deposit, the funds should be withdrawn from the account. Rule 1.16(d) requires the refund to the client of any part of a fee that is not earned by the lawyer at the time that the representation is terminated.

[13] Client or third-party funds on occasion pass through, or are originated by, intermediaries before deposit to a trust or fiduciary account. Such intermediaries include banks, credit card processors, litigation funding entities, and online marketing platforms. A lawyer may use an intermediary to collect a fee. However, the lawyer may not participate in or facilitate the collection of a fee by an intermediary that is unreliable or untrustworthy. Therefore, the lawyer has an obligation to make a reasonable investigation into the reliability, stability, and viability of an intermediary to determine whether reasonable measures are being taken to segregate and safeguard client funds against loss or theft and, should such funds be lost, that the intermediary has the resources to compensate the client. Absent other indicia of fraud (such as the use of non-industry standard methods for collection of credit card information), a lawyer’s diligence obligation is satisfied if the intermediary collects client funds using a credit or debit card. Unearned fees, if collected by an intermediary, must be transferred to the lawyer’s designated trust or fiduciary account within a reasonable period of time so as to minimize the risk of loss while the funds are in the possession of another, and to enable the collection of interest on the funds for the IOLTA program or the client as appropriate. See 27 N.C.A.C. 1B, Sect. .1300.

Abandoned Property

[14] Should a lawyer need technical assistance concerning the escheat of property to the State of North Carolina, the lawyer should contact the escheat officer at the Office of the North Carolina State Treasurer in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Disputed Funds

[15] A lawyer is not required to remit to the client funds that the lawyer reasonably believes represent fees owed. However, a lawyer may not hold funds to coerce a client into accepting the lawyer's contention. The disputed portion of the funds must be kept in a trust account and the lawyer should suggest means for prompt resolution of the dispute, such as the State Bar's program for fee dispute resolution. See Rule 1.5(f). The undisputed portion of the funds shall be promptly distributed.

[16] Third parties may have lawful claims against specific funds or other property in a lawyer's custody, such as a client's creditor who has a lien on funds recovered in a personal injury action. A lawyer may have a duty under applicable law to protect such third-party claims against wrongful interference by the client. In such cases, when the third-party claim is not frivolous under applicable law, the lawyer must refuse to surrender the property to the client until the claim is resolved. A lawyer should not unilaterally assume to arbitrate a dispute between the client and the third party, but, when there are substantial grounds for dispute as to the person entitled to the funds, the lawyer may file an action to have a court resolve the dispute.

Responsibility for Records and Accountings

[17] It is the lawyer's responsibility to assure that complete and accurate records of the receipt and disbursement of entrusted property are maintained in accordance with this rule. The required record retention period of six years set forth in this rule does not preclude the State Bar from seeking records for a period prior to the retention period and, if obtained, from pursuing a disciplinary action based thereon if such action is not prohibited by law or other rules of the State Bar.

[18] The rules permit the retention of records in electronic form. A storage device is appropriate for backing up electronic records if it reasonably assures that the records will be recoverable despite the failure or destruction of the original storage device on which the records are stored. For a discussion of storage methods not solely under the control of the lawyer, see 2011 FEO 6.

[19] Many businesses are now converting paper checks to automated clearinghouse (ACH) debits to decrease costs and increase operating efficiencies. When a check is converted, the check is taken either at the point-of-sale or through the mail for payment, the account information is captured from the check, and an electronic transaction is created for payment through the ACH system. The original physical check is typically destroyed by the converting entity (although an image of the check may be stored for a certain period of time). If a check drawn on a trust account is converted to ACH, the lawyer will not receive either the physical check or a check image. The transaction will appear on the lawyer's trust account statement as an ACH debit with limited information about the payment (e.g., dollar amount, date processed, originator of the ACH debit).

[20] To prevent conversion of a check to ACH without authorization, a lawyer is required to use checks with an "Auxiliary On-Us field." A check will not be eligible for conversion to ACH if it contains an Auxiliary On-Us field, which is an additional field that appears in the left-most position of the MICR (magnetic ink character recognition) line on a business size check. The lawyer should confirm with the lawyer's financial institution that the Auxiliary On-Us field is included on the lawyer's trust account checks. Including an Auxiliary On-Us field on the check will require using checks that are longer than six inches. As with the other information in the MICR line of a check, the routing, account and payment numbers, the financial institution issuing the check determines the content of the Auxiliary On-Us field.

[21] Authorized ACH debits that are electronic transfers of funds (in which no checks are involved) are allowed provided the lawyer maintains a record of the transaction as required by Rule 1.15-3(b)(3) and (c)(3). The record, whether consisting of the instructions or authorization to debit the account, a record or receipt from the register of deeds or a financial institution, or the lawyer's independent record of the transaction, must show the amount, date, and recipient of the transfer or disbursement, and, in the case of a general trust account, also show the name of the client or other person to whom the funds belong.

[22] The lawyer is responsible for keeping a client, or any other person to whom the lawyer is accountable, advised of the status of entrusted property held by the lawyer. In addition, the lawyer must take steps to discover any unauthorized transactions involving trust funds as soon as possible. Therefore, it is essential that the lawyer regularly reconcile a general trust account. This means that, at least once a month, the lawyer must reconcile the current bank statement balance with the balance shown for the entire account in the lawyer's records, such as a check register or its equivalent, as of the date of the bank statement. At least once a quarter, the lawyer must reconcile the individual client balances shown on the lawyer's ledger with the current bank statement balance. Monthly reconciliation will help to uncover unauthorized ACH transactions promptly. The current bank balance is the balance obtained when subtracting outstanding checks and other withdrawals from the bank statement balance and adding outstanding deposits to the bank statement balance. With regard to trust funds held in any trust account, there is also an affirmative duty to produce a written accounting for the client and to deliver it to the client, either at the conclusion of the transaction or periodically if funds are held for an appreciable period. Such accountings must be made at least annually or at more frequent intervals if reasonably requested by the client.

Bank Notice of Overdrafts

[23] A properly maintained trust account should not have any items presented against insufficient funds. However, even the best-maintained accounts are subject to inadvertent errors by the bank or the lawyer, which may be easily explained. The reporting requirement should not be burdensome and may help avoid a more serious problem.

Fraud Prevention Measures

[24] The mandatory monthly and quarterly reviews and oversight measures in Rule 1.15-3(i) facilitate early detection of internal theft and early detection and correction of errors. They are minimum fraud prevention measures necessary for the protection of funds on deposit in a firm trust or fiduciary account from theft by any person with access to the account. Internal theft from trust accounts by insiders at a law firm can only be timely detected if the records of the firm’s trust accounts are routinely reviewed. For this reason, Rule 1.15-3(i)(1) requires monthly reviews of the bank statements and cancelled checks for all general, dedicated, and fiduciary accounts. In addition, Rule 1.15-3(i)(2) requires quarterly reviews of a random sample of three transactions for each trust account, dedicated trust account, and fiduciary account including examination of the statement of costs and receipts, client ledger, and cancelled checks for the transactions. Review of these documents will enable the lawyer to verify that the disbursements were made properly. Although not required by the rule, a larger sample than three transactions is advisable to increase the likelihood that internal theft will be detected.

[25] Another internal control to prevent fraud is found in Rule 1.15-2(s) which addresses the signature authority for trust account checks. The provision prohibits an employee who is responsible for performing the monthly or quarterly reconciliations for a trust account from being a signatory on a check for that account. Dividing the check signing and reconciliation responsibilities makes it more difficult for one employee to hide fraudulent transactions. Similarly, signature stamps, preprinted signature lines on checks, and electronic signatures are prohibited to prevent their use for fraudulent purposes.

[26] In addition to the recommendations in the North Carolina State Bar Trust Account Handbook (see the chapter on Safeguarding Funds from Embezzlement), the following fraud prevention measures are recommended:

(1) Enrolling the trust account in an automated fraud detection program;

(2) Implementation of security measures to prevent fraudulent wire transfers of funds;

(3) Actively maintaining end-user security at the law firm through safety practices such as strong password policies and procedures, the use of encryption and security software, and periodic consultation with an information technology security professional to advise firm employees; and

(4) Insuring that all staff members who assist with the management of the trust account receive training on and abide by the security measures adopted by the firm. 

Lawyers should frequently evaluate whether additional fraud control measures are necessary and appropriate.

Duty to Report Misappropriation or Misapplication

[27] A lawyer is required by Rule 1.15-2(p) to report to the Trust Account Compliance Counsel of the North Carolina State Bar Office of Counsel if the lawyer knows or reasonably believes that entrusted property, including trust funds, has been misappropriated or misapplied. The rule requires the reporting of an unintentional misapplication of trust funds, such as the inadvertent use of one client’s funds on deposit in a general trust account to pay the obligations of another client, unless the lawyer discovers and rectifies the error on or before the next scheduled quarterly reconciliation. A lawyer is required to report the conduct of lawyers and non-lawyers as well as the lawyer’s own conduct. A report is required regardless of whether information leading to the discovery of the misappropriation or misapplication would otherwise be protected by Rule 1.6. If disclosure of confidential client information is necessary to comply with this rule, the lawyer’s disclosure should be limited to the information that is necessary to enable the State Bar to investigate. See Rule 1.6, cmt. [15].

Designation of a Trust Account Oversight Officer

[28] In a firm with two or more lawyers, personal oversight of all of the activities in the general trust accounts by all of the lawyers in the firm is often impractical. Nevertheless, any lawyer in the firm who deposits into a general trust account funds entrusted to the lawyer by or on behalf of a client is professionally responsible for the administration of the trust account in compliance with Rule 1.15 regardless of whether the lawyer directly participates in the administration of the trust account. Moreover, Rule 5.1 requires all lawyers with managerial or supervisory authority over the other lawyers in a firm to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyers conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 1.15-4 provides a procedure for delegation of the oversight of the routine administration of a general trust account to a firm partner, shareholder, or member (see Rule 1.0(h)) in a manner that is professionally responsible. By identifying, training, and documenting the appointment of a trust account oversight officer (TAOO) for the law firm, the lawyers in a multiple-lawyer firm may responsibly delegate the routine administration of the firm’s general trust accounts to a qualified lawyer. Delegation consistent with the requirements of Rule 1.15-4 is evidence of a lawyer’s good faith effort to comply with Rule 5.1.

[29] Nevertheless, designation of a TAOO does not insulate from professional discipline a lawyer who personally engaged in dishonest or fraudulent conduct. Moreover, a lawyer having actual or constructive knowledge of dishonest or fraudulent conduct or the mismanagement of a trust account in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct by any firm lawyer or employee remains subject to professional discipline if the lawyer fails to promptly take reasonable remedial action to avoid the consequences of such conduct including reporting the conduct as required by Rule 1.15-2(p) or Rule 8.3. See also Rule 5.1 and Rule 5.3.

Limitations on Delegation to TAOO

[30] Despite the designation of a TAOO pursuant to Rule 1.15-4, each lawyer in the firm remains professionally responsible for the trust account activity associated with the legal matters for which the lawyer provides representation. Therefore, for each legal matter for which the lawyer is primary counsel, the lawyer must review and approve any disbursement sheet or settlement statement, trust account entry in the client ledger, and trust account balance associated with the matter. Similarly, a lawyer who establishes a dedicated trust account or fiduciary account in connection with the representation of a client is professionally responsible for the administration of the dedicated trust account or fiduciary account in compliance with Rule 1.15.

Training for Service as a TAOO

[31] A qualified provider of the educational training programs for a TAOO described in Rule 1.15-4(c)(1)(C) need not be an accredited sponsor of continuing legal education programs (see 27 NCAC 1D, Rule .1520), but must be knowledgeable and reputable in the specific field and must offer educational materials as part of its usual course of business. Training may be completed via live presentations, online courses, or self-guided study. Self-guided study may consist of reading articles, presentation materials, or websites that have been created for the purpose of education in the areas of financial fraud, safeguarding funds from embezzlement, risk management for bank accounts, information security and on-line banking, or basic accounting.

History Note: Statutory Authority G.S. 84-23

Amendments Approved by the Supreme Court: March 1, 2003; March 6, 2008; June 9, 2016; March 17, 2019

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