NEW PORT RICHEY — The Florida Supreme Court has ordered the suspension of a local attorney for making himself and his wife the beneficiaries of an elderly client's will, and neglecting another client's estate case.
Attorney Donald Ray Peyton has been suspended for 90 days by the Supreme Court following an investigation by the Florida Bar that began in 2009. He is also ordered to reimburse the Bar for $1,510 in investigative costs.
The Supreme Court entered the judgment March 30 and gave Peyton 30 days from that day to "close out his practice and protect the interests of existing clients." After the 30 days, Peyton can no longer accept new business during his suspension.
Peyton did not contest a report by a referee assigned to the case, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Denise Pomponio, that called for the suspension, according to the Supreme Court's order. Peyton did not return phone calls this week seeking comment, and his New Port Richey attorney in the case, David Ristoff, declined comment.
In 2007, Peyton began representing an elderly Port Richey woman, M. Evelyn Fitzgerald, on estate planning matters, says the Florida Bar's complaint.
During that representation, Fitzgerald told Peyton she wanted her son stripped of his power of attorney over her estate. Peyton then designated himself and his wife, Karen, who works as an assistant in Peyton's Little Road firm, as power of attorney and health care surrogates for Fitzgerald, the complaint says.
Peyton also prepared a will for Fitzgerald naming him and his wife as beneficiaries. Additionally, he sold her home for her for $61,000 after she entered an assisted living facility.
The Bar complaint said Peyton did not charge Fitzgerald for the services, but she later revoked the Peytons' power of attorney and got another lawyer.
Peyton's actions amounted to a violation of Florida Bar rules that say an attorney "shall not solicit any substantial gift from a client, including a testamentary gift," according to the complaint.
An attorney also cannot prepare any "instrument giving the lawyer or a person related to the lawyer any substantial gift unless the lawyer or other recipient of the gift is related to the client," the complaint states.
In a second count, the complaint states Peyton took on a client in 2006 to handle probate for the estate of her mother. But then for months, Janice Grimm was not able to speak with Peyton regarding the status of the matter, though Peyton's office assistant, his daughter Joey, assured her the case was progressing.
Grimm later discovered by searching court records that her mother's will had never been filed.
Peyton violated rules by failing to communicate with his client and failing to oversee his assistant who gave misleading information to Grimm about the status of her case, according to the Florida Bar's complaint.