Agent On Power of Attorney is Personally Liable for Legal Fees

MARCH 3, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 9

Let’s say that Billy signs a power of attorney, naming his friend Joyce as his agent. Later Billy becomes incapacitated, and his agent needs legal advice about her rights and responsibilities. Who will pay for their legal advice?

Generally speaking, you are not supposed to have to spend your own money for things you need to do while acting under a power of attorney, and that includes getting legal advice. But the real world can sometimes get in the way — Billy’s assets may be insufficient to pay legal fees, there may be a dispute about whether his agents are acting in his best interests, or there may be personal interests that they are simultaneously promoting.

This concern is not academic, at least for the people involved in a recent Arizona Court of Appeals decision. “Billy” in that case was Billy Preston, who was sometimes tagged as “the fifth Beatle.” He became seriously ill in 2005, and was admitted to a hospital in Phoenix; he died in June, 2006, after months in a coma.

Billy had signed a medical power of attorney in 2004, naming his friend Joyce Moore as health care agent. Joyce was already his agent — she had represented him as a musician for some years before he signed the health care power of attorney. In March, 2006, while Billy was comatose, his half-sister petitioned the Arizona probate court to be named Billy’s conservator. Although Joyce’s power of attorney put her in charge of medical, not financial, decisions, she felt that she needed legal advice. Joyce hired a Phoenix law firm to represent her; she signed a retainer agreement on March 30, 2006.

Apparently, Joyce and her lawyers did not have the same understanding of their relationship. While Joyce later testified that she thought her lawyers represented her only as health care agent for Billy, her lawyers insisted that they represented her as an individual because of her financial dealings with Billy.

Joyce insisted that her lawyers should submit their bill to Billy’s estate; whether or not that made sense, it was an impractical way to secure payment since the Billy Preston estate had declared bankruptcy. In fact, the estate sought (and recovered) some of the retainer fee Joyce had given to her lawyers, since it had come from Billy’s estate and had not been approved by the bankruptcy court.

Three years after Billy Preston’s death, Joyce’s attorneys sued her personally for about $30,000 in legal fees. Joyce argued that she was not personally liable for the bill; a fee arbitration process found otherwise, and awarded $13,550.86 in legal fees and costs to the law firm. Joyce appealed and set the dispute for trial.

After a three-day trial, an Arizona jury ruled that Joyce personally owed her lawyers $20,000. Joyce appealed the judgment. Last week the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the award of fees and costs to Joyce’s lawyers, finding that she had not produced sufficient arguments to overcome the jury’s award. Burch & Cracchiolo, P.A. v. Moore, February 27, 2014.

The ruling itself is not actually all that revealing. Joyce represented herself for the appeal, and did not submit transcripts of the trial proceeding; in the absence of those transcripts, the appellate court ruled that she could not show that there had been mistakes in the trial court. The real value of the case, for our purposes, is a chance to explore the authority of agents under powers of attorney to hire lawyers (and other professionals).

There is little doubt that an agent can hire an attorney, accountant, physician or other professional as may be needed in order to discharge their obligations as agent. So, for instance, it would be easy to imagine a circumstance in which there were legitimate legal questions about the agent’s authority, or powers, or duties, and hiring a lawyer might well be necessary and appropriate to help figure out the answers to those questions. That lawyer’s fees would ordinarily be charged against the estate of the principal (the person who signed the power of attorney).

Similarly, it would be easy to imagine that a financial agent might need to hire an accountant to prepare tax returns or accountings, or to investigate past transactions. Those charges should be paid by the estate in most cases, too. Same thing for hiring a doctor, or a social worker, or a case manager, to help oversee care of a person who has signed a health care power of attorney.

Problems can and do arise when the agent also has business dealings with the principal before the power of attorney is signed or used — and such circumstances do happen. After all, it often makes sense to name your business associate to manage your own finances — typically they might know more about your finances than others, even family members. But that can complicate the responsibility to figure out what the attorney (or accountant, or medical professional) is doing for the agent as agent, and what is being done for the agent as an individual.

It’s hard to tease out how much of that might have been going on in Billy’s case, since the appellate record is sparse. But confusion between the lawyers’ view of their role and the client/agent’s view is not that uncommon; it’s why a fee agreement should spell out the precise relationship and who will be responsible for payment.

Typically, a lawyer’s fee agreement might provide that bills will be submitted to the principal’s estate. If they are not paid for any reason (even though that failure or refusal of payment might be challenged), the fee agreement often will provide that the agent is responsible for payment and for seeking reimbursement from the estate. Such a provision might have been in Joyce’s attorney’s fee agreement, but the appellate court did not mention it.

Does all that mean that you should refuse to act as agent because  you might incur personal expenses if things go awry? If you are very skittish about the possibility, you should consider whether it is important enough for you to decline. In the real world, however, disputes like this are rare — and your loved ones need someone to step up and take responsibility for their care if and when they are unable to do it themselves.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC