OCTOBER 27, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 39
Guardianship (of the person) and conservatorship (of the estate) cases pose special problems for lawyers. Usually, a lawyer involved in such a case will have responsibilities to several different persons. To name three obvious choices, the lawyer will have duties to: the guardian or conservator the lawyer represents; the ward or protected person subject to the proceedings; and the court itself. State law varies as to how the responsibilities are divided, and what the lawyer’s duty actually is — especially when the guardian / conservator misbehaves. But there is little doubt that there is significant responsibility for the lawyer to oversee the actual administration of the guardianship or conservatorship.
A recent California Court of Appeals case describes the dilemma facing lawyers in conservatorship cases. When Deborah Delmonico (not her real name) became ill, her son Daniel hired Alameda County attorney Monica Dell’Osso to help him get control of her assets. Deborah had already signed a revocable living trust (naming Daniel as successor trustee), and most of her assets were titled to that trust. Ms. Dell’Osso filed a petition to get Daniel appointed as conservator of both the estate and person of Deborah (in California, conservatorship of the person is equivalent to what we in Arizona would call guardianship of the person). No court action was required with regard to the trust; Daniel just took over managing trust assets.
In an apparent attempt to save costs and simplify administration, Ms. Dell’Osso asked the court to waive any requirement of a bond for the conservatorship of the estate. She argued that there were no assets outside the trust, and that the trust did not require court supervision (or bonding). The court agreed, and Daniel was appointed conservator of his mother’s person and estate, without any requirement of bond.
As it turned out there were assets outside the trust — extensive real estate holdings and several Individual Retirement Accounts, at least. The total value of assets in Deborah’s name individually exceeded $1 million. According to the later complaint filed with the conservatorship court, Ms. Dell’Osso not only knew about those assets, but her office helped Daniel to collect them and administer them. She never told the probate judge about the extensive individual holdings, and so they were never court-controlled or subjected to a bonding requirement.
Eventually, Daniel simply took a million dollars worth of assets from his mother’s conservatorship estate. Once the probate court learned of his misappropriation he was removed, and a professional fiduciary was appointed to take over Deborah’s estate.
The professional fiduciary filed a lawsuit against Daniel for conversion of his mother’s property and for elder abuse. She also sued Ms. Dell’Osso for legal malpractice, arguing that she had a responsibility to Deborah and the court to inform them of the assets outside the trust, and to oversee Daniel’s administration as conservator.
Ms. Dell’Osso moved for dismissal of the complaint, making these two arguments (in addition to others not relevant here):
- Since she represented Daniel, she argued that the successor conservator could not sue her for malpractice — only her actual client (Daniel) would have a cause of action against her.
- Even if the new conservator could sue her, they would stand in Daniel’s shoes — and because Daniel had himself misbehaved, he could not have brought an action against her. Hence, the malpractice lawsuit would fail.
The trial judge agreed, and dismissed the lawsuit against Ms. Dell’Osso. The California Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back for a trial on the merits.
First, the appellate court ruled that a successor conservator can sue the prior conservator’s attorney for malpractice — at least under California law (the answer may differ in other jurisdictions). This is different from the circumstance where a family member, or intended beneficiary of a trust or estate plan (to cite two common examples) is attempting to sue the attorney for malpractice in representation of the original client.
In this case, according to the court, the successor conservator essentially stands in the original client’s shoes, and can bring the malpractice lawsuit. In fact, the court takes this analogy one step further and notes that the attorney’s confidential communications with the prior conservator will not be privileged as to the successor conservator — the professional fiduciary in this case holds the privilege, and can ask Ms. Dell’Osso about her conversations and correspondence with Daniel.
Second, the appellate court strikes down any argument that the professional fiduciary is restricted by her predecessor’s bad actions. While the court agrees that (under California law, at least) Daniel would not be able to sue for malpractice because of his own misbehavior, that restriction does not extend to his successor. In this sense she does not stand in the prior conservator’s shoes.
Two observations by the Court of Appeals seem particularly apt. One is that “an individual who is a fiduciary wears two distinct and separate hats — one as a fiduciary and one as an individual….” This complicates the relationship between a fiduciary and his or her lawyer, since the lawyer is often wearing (to continue the analogy) as many as four hats: one as attorney for the fiduciary individually, another as attorney for the fiduciary as fiduciary, a third as a protector of the interests of the subject of the proceedings, and a final hat as representative of the court and legal system.
On a very practical level, the court decision notes that any other outcome would make a successor conservator’s job impossible. “[W]hy would any competent individual agree to take over as a successor fiduciary if he or she were tarred with and shackled by the malfeasance of a prior fiduciary?” asks the court. The opinion’s answer: the successor fiduciary is not so restrained. Stine v. Dell’Osso, October 17, 2014.
Would the Stine case be decided the same way in Arizona? Probably, though there is a recent change in the law that makes it less than completely clear. Arizona’s Court of Appeals decided the landmark case of Fickett v. Superior Court in 1976, which clearly would have created a potential liability for the attorney for a conservator. Recent changes in Arizona statutes muddy the question somewhat, but probably not enough to prevent the imposition of liability in facts like these.