Late Request Does Not Prevent Fee Award to Trustee’s Lawyer

JUNE 28, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 21
Mesa, Arizona, lawyer Donald C. Galbasini first began representing members of the Tremble family in 1998. That was when he filed a notice that he would be the attorney for Vernice Tremble, who was serving as conservator for Edward Tremble, Jr., her grandson.

Nine years later Vernice Tremble was removed by the probate judge as conservator — and also as trustee of a special needs trust that had been set up for Edward Tremble. A professional trustee was appointed to take over management of the special needs trust. A year and a half after that, Edward Tremble died and another family member was appointed to finalize the trust administration and distribution. Mr. Galbasini filed a notice that he would be representing the new trustee in connection with wrapping up the trust.

A month after stepping in as the new trustee’s lawyer, Mr. Galbasini filed a request for approval of a $46,736.65 fee — for his representation dating back to 1998. The state Medicaid agency (which would receive most of the balance of Edward Tremble’s trust under the rules governing self-settled special needs trusts) objected, arguing that it was too late for Mr. Galbasini to be filing his bill for approval and payment.

The trustee who had been handling the trust in the interim joined in the state’s objection, adding other arguments. Because of Mr. Galbasini’s long involvement and representation of a conservator who had been removed, argued the trustee, it would be impossible at this late date to figure out whether his representation had benefited Edward Tremble or other family members. The trustee pointed out that Mr. Galbasini had billed at his regular attorney rate for ministerial actions like writing checks out of his client trust account. Furthermore, the trustee was concerned that none of Mr. Galbasini’s reported time was for contact with Vernice Tremble, his client — all of his contacts had been with Edward Tremble’s parents, Mr. Galbasini’s client’s son and daughter-in-law.

The probate judge agreed, and denied Mr. Galbasini’s fee request as untimely. The Arizona Court of Appeals, however, disagreed — it reversed the fee denial and sent the matter back to the trial judge for further hearings. The question wasn’t whether the fee request was late, ruled the appellate court — instead, the important question was whether the fees were reasonable and for the benefit of Edward Tremble’s trust and conservatorship estates.

The appellate court did not rule that Mr. Galbasini’s fees were reasonable, but only that he needed to be given a chance to explain and defend them. If the court finds that the fees were incurred during times when he did not actually represent the conservator or trustee, for instance, the Court of Appeals agreed that those fees should be denied. The mere lateness of the application, however, was not enough to justify a complete denial of Mr. Galbasini’s fees. Conservatorship of Tremble, June 10, 2010.

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