Public Fiduciary Offices in Arizona

SEPTEMBER 20, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 35
When an individual living in Arizona becomes incapacitated, or needs financial protection because of diminishing capacity, a family member, friend or private professional fiduciary might be appointed to act as guardian (of the person) or conservator (of the estate). But what if there is no one available to act, or if all the possible candidates are disqualified for some reason?

For over four decades Arizona counties have had a public official who can act as guardian and/or conservator when no one else is available. The Public Fiduciary is designated in each county by the Board of Supervisors, and runs an office (and staff) funded by the county. In addition to guardianship and conservatorship, the office also handles probate of decedent’s estates when no one else can be appointed.

A handful of other states have similar offices, though most handle guardianship only, conservatorship only, or probate only. Many states have similar agencies that can act as guardian or conservator for particular groups of people — typically veterans, or the developmentally disabled. Arizona’s unique experiment was to group all those functions together into one office, and to call it the Public Fiduciary.

Does that mean that Arizona’s Public Fiduciary offices are an inexpensive alternative for poor families who don’t want to incur the costs of initiating guardianship, conservatorship or probate? No. Public Fiduciary offices do not represent families — they file petitions for the office’s own appointment instead of appointment of family members. They also charge fees, meaning that they may or may not be less expensive than private fiduciaries and lawyers representing family members. Most importantly, they will not act when there are suitable family members available.

Arizona’s Public Fiduciary offices have been a very positive success (though there have been individual incidents of abuse by at least two different Public Fiduciaries). Generally speaking, the offices act when estates are small, legal problems are substantial, and/or family members have misbehaved. But there are no formal limitations on the kinds of cases the Public Fiduciary can get involved with, and (though the experience is different in each county) public fiduciaries tend to be the most experienced, most knowledgeable resource for guardianship, conservatorship and probate problems in most counties.

You can read more at the website of the Pima County Public Fiduciary (that’s the county in which all of Tucson is located). There is a separate — but usually similarly-run — office in each Arizona county. Note that, at least in Tucson, the office also handles other, related functions — chief among those is management of the county burial system for indigent decedents or those who die without locatable family.

We last wrote specifically about the Pima County Public Fiduciary in (and this amazes even us) 1994. To put that in context: the office is now more than twice as old as when we last highlighted them. A considerable amount has changed since that time: for one thing, the current Pima County Public Fiduciary (well, the Interim Public Fiduciary, anyway) is the first non-lawyer to hold the office in its 42-year history. Peter Santini has been a core staff member for two decades, and is a logical choice to handle that role. His predecessor retired recently, and the County is in the process of making a permanent selection.

One thing hasn’t really changed in over twenty years. You can still make a referral to the Pima County Public Fiduciary by calling their office and talking with an intake person on staff. Their phone number: 520-724-5454.  Remember, though, that they only handle Pima County cases; there’s no point in contacting them about Public Fiduciary matters in any of Arizona’s other 13 counties, or for similar cases in other jurisdictions.

If you thought about it a minute, you’d probably guess that the availability of an office like the Public Fiduciary would mean that there are fewer private-industry alternatives for similar work in Arizona. In fact, though, the experience is exactly the opposite. Despite a robust and effective Public Fiduciary system in Arizona, the private fiduciary industry is much more extensive, better-regulated and more professional than in many other states. That may be partly a result of good training — a large portion of the private fiduciary industry learned how to handle guardianships, conservatorships and probates while working in their local Public Fiduciary offices.

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