Practice Management Advisory Service

Opening an IOLTA Account

In the District of Columbia, a lawyer’s responsibility for funds that are entrusted to him or her is governed by the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, specifically Rule 1.15. Under this rule, client or third party funds in the lawyer’s possession (trust funds) as a result of a representation must be placed in a trust account.

Effective August 1, 2010, trust funds that are nominal in amount or expected to be held for a short period of time, and thus will not earn income greater than the cost incurred to secure such income, are to be held in an IOLTA account in a compliant bank.

The IOLTA account is opened by the lawyer completing the D.C. IOLTA Account Registration Form and submitting the form to a D.C. IOLTA compliant bank.

IOLTA Form
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Note: Many banks use this form. However, take the form with you when you open an IOLTA account, then forward it to the D.C. Bar Foundation. Do not send it directly to the Bar or attempt to fill it out online.

View the list of D.C. IOLTA compliant banks.

The title of a D.C. IOLTA account shall include the name of the lawyer or law firm that controls the account and the words D.C. IOLTA Account or IOLTA Account.

Interest earned on the pooled trust funds in a D.C. IOLTA account goes to the D.C. Bar Foundation to fund pro bono legal services. A D.C. IOLTA account uses the Bar Foundation’s tax identification number because the Foundation is the beneficial owner of the interest.

The determination of whether client funds are nominal in amount or to be held for a short period of time rests in the sound judgment of each lawyer or law firm operating the account. (see Rule 1.15, Comment [5])


Frequently Asked Questions About IOLTA Accounts

Am I required to have an IOLTA account?

Yes, if you receive IOLTA eligible funds. You are not required to have any client trust accounts until you begin to receive trust funds. For example, lawyers who are not in private practice may never receive IOLTA eligible funds. When you begin to receive funds on behalf of clients, such as advance fees or unearned costs, you must maintain either a separate trust account for each client (if the amount is expected to earn interest for the client in excess of the cost of maintaining the account), or an interest bearing common–client or “pooled” trust account to hold the funds of more than one client. Advance fee payments such as flat fees or sums against which an hourly rate will be applied are typically deposited into the D.C. IOLTA account. Absent informed consent from the client, a fee advance from a client must be placed in a trust account. Most firms place these fee advances in a D.C. IOLTA account because the advances are considered either nominal in amount or to be held for a short period of time and therefore any interest earned in an individual trust account would be consumed by the expense of administration. Therefore, if you receive IOLTA eligible funds, you must have a D.C. IOLTA account. If money you receive as a lawyer is for payment of legal services you have already provided, for example, you performed the work, sent a bill and were paid, then you do not need a trust account of any kind.

Are there any exceptions to the new, mandatory IOLTA account rule?

Yes, there are two limited exceptions. Trust funds are not deposited into a D.C. IOLTA when the lawyer is otherwise compliant with the contrary mandates of a tribunal. In other words, if a court order directs the lawyer to place trust funds in an account other than a D.C. IOLTA account, the lawyer must comply. The second exception occurs when the lawyer is participating in and compliant with the IOLTA program of another jurisdiction where the lawyer is licensed and principally practices. For example, if the lawyer is licensed in and principally practices in Maryland, IOLTA eligible funds from D.C. clients can be deposited into the Maryland IOLTA account and the lawyer would not need a D.C. IOLTA account.

Lawyers may seek additional guidance from the D.C. Bar’s legal ethics counsel, at 202–737–4700, ext. 3231, or ext. 3232, or at ethics@dcbar.org.

How do I set up an IOLTA account?

The same financial institution where you have your business (operating) account should be able to help you set it up using the proper forms, but you may choose any financial institution that is on the list of approved financial institutions. The list of approved financial institutions is available from the D.C. Bar Foundation (202-467-3750) or from the Board on Professional Responsibility (202–638–4290). If the person you are dealing with at the financial institution does not know what an IOLTA account is, go to another person, branch, or financial institution, or call the IOLTA program administrator for help (202–467–3750) or the Practice Management Advisor of the D.C. Bar (202-626-1312).

IOLTA Form
This is a one–page, 51.80 KB PDF document
Download and save now.
Note: Many banks use this form. However, take the form with you when you open an IOLTA account, then forward it to the D.C. Bar Foundation. Do not send it directly to the Bar or attempt to fill it out online.

Do all of my trust accounts have to be IOLTA accounts?

No, just the common–client trust account to which you deposit client funds of more than one client that are nominal in amount or to be held for a short period of time. Other trust accounts that you may choose to open for a single client ordinarily will not be IOLTA accounts; the client will get all interest on the funds held. Whether to set up a separate trust account rests in the sound judgment of the lawyer. (see Rule 1.15, Comment [5]) The separate account is generally set up when the funds are more than “nominal” and/or to be held for longer than a “short” duration, such that the interest earned will not be consumed by the cost of administering the account.

What do the terms “nominal in amount” and “short duration” mean?

These terms are expressly not defined in the Rule, and are left to the lawyer’s sound discretion. Many firms place advance fees from multiple clients into a common–client trust account, knowing that the funds will be removed as earned. Some firms also place settlement funds into a common–client trust account, knowing that the funds will be distributed to the client and other recipients within a few days or weeks. Other lawyers, knowing that they will be receiving large amounts of funds for a client, or must hold funds for weeks or months, decide to open a separate interest–bearing trust account for the benefit of that one client. The client then receives the benefit of the interest earned while those funds are being held by the lawyer. Again, the final determination is left to each lawyer to use sound reason to decide where to place the funds. Comment [5] to Rule 1.15 states in part: “The determination, under paragraph (b), whether trust funds are not expected to earn income in excess of costs, rests in the sound judgment of the lawyer. The lawyer should review trust practices at reasonable intervals to determine whether circumstances require further action with respect to the funds of any client or third party.”

I already have an IOLTA account, but the interest goes to another bar. Do I have to have an IOLTA account for D.C. clients?

It depends upon where you principally practice. When the lawyer is participating in, and compliant with, the trust accounting rules and the IOLTA program of another jurisdiction in which the lawyer is licensed and principally practices, the lawyer is not required to have a D.C. IOLTA account and can place D.C. eligible trust funds into the IOLTA account of the other jurisdiction. However, always check to make sure you are compliant with the IOLTA rules of the jurisdiction in which you principally practice.

I have an office in both the District of Columbia and Maryland and I am licensed and actively practice in both jurisdictions. I have an IOLTA in each jurisdiction. Do I need to keep both IOLTAs now that IOLTA is mandatory in the District of Columbia as well as Maryland?

If the clear majority of your income is generated in Maryland, you are considered to principally practice in Maryland and you are not obligated to have a District of Columbia IOLTA. For Maryland IOLTA questions see: www.mlsc.org.


Comment [4] to Rule 1.15 provides lawyers with guidance about how to determine his or her principal place of practice. Lawyers may also seek guidance from the D.C. Bar’s legal ethics counsel, at 202–737–4700, ext. 3231, or ext. 3232, or at ethics@dcbar.org.

How do I contact the IOLTA program if I have questions?

For more information about the IOLTA program, please visit www.dcbarfoundation.org or contact the IOLTA administrator at the D.C. Bar Foundation at 202–467–3750.

For additional information about client trust accounts or handling client funds, contact the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service at 202–737–4700, ext. 3212. The Practice Management Advisory Service is a free and confidential service of the District of Columbia Bar to help members with a wide range of practice management issues. For free and confidential assistance with ethical questions, please contact the D.C. Bar’s legal ethics counsel at 202–737–4700, ext. 3231 or 3232.