Posts Tagged ‘Arizona Legislature’

Arizona Legislative Changes Effective September 12

AUGUST 26, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 32

The Arizona legislature meets every spring, and in most years adopts changes that affect elder law attorneys, estate planners, guardians, conservators and trustees. The changes become effective nine months after the end of the legislative session, which means that late summer is the time for annual review of new laws about to become effective.

For 2013 the effective date for most new legislation will be September 12. There are a handful of changes affecting our practice area, including:

Fingerprints. The legislature decided to make it a little bit harder for most people to get appointed as guardian or conservator for a family member or other person needing assistance. It has long been the law that unrelated guardians of minors had to submit to fingerprinting; now anyone seeking a guardianship or conservatorship over an adult (related or not) can be required to undergo fingerprinting. Not every person will be required to provide official fingerprints, and it is not yet clear how the courts will implement the new law.

If the courts require fingerprinting, the change will primarily affect family members, since professional fiduciaries already have to go through a fingerprint review to get licensed in the first place. The cost is modest; probably most important for petitioners will be the half-day it usually takes to get to the fingerprinting office, wait in line and get the card. Then it will be submitted for a criminal record check.

This change continues the trend of the past several years to make court proceedings more difficult, and to discourage concerned family members from initiating protective proceedings. While the effect will probably be small, there is a cumulative shift making it more expensive and difficult to seek legal help for a failing family member. It also increases the importance of advance planning to avoid having to turn to the courts for that help.

Simplified probate proceedings for small estates. It has long been possible to avoid probate in Arizona for smaller estates. If personal property in the decedent’s name does not total more than $50,000 (and that does not include joint tenancy property, property held in a trust or property with a valid beneficiary designation) then the person entitled to the property can collect it with a simple affidavit. Even real property can be subject to a simplified probate proceeding, up to $75,000 in value.

Now both of those figures are set to increase. The personal property limit will go from $50,000 to $75,000, and the real estate limit from $75,000 to $100,000. This one will affect a small number of estates, but can save significant costs for those who fit under the increased limits. More good news: the valuation figures are for estates as of the date of collection, not the date of death. In other words, for a decedent’s estate worth more than $50,000 but less than $75,000 the best strategy will likely to be to wait another month before taking action.

Trusts created by married couples. This change is a little bit arcane, but could have broader impact than was probably intended. Many married couples establish trusts that become irrevocable (or partly irrevocable) after the death of the first spouse. Typically, those trusts permit the surviving spouse to manage the assets and, in some circumstances, to even withdraw the principal for their own use. The new law will make it a little harder for surviving spouses to legitimately withdraw money from those trusts — though another family member acting as trustee will not face the same limitations.

With the significant increase in federal estate tax exemption levels (there is currently no tax until the estate is more than $5 million in most cases), many of our clients want to eliminate irrevocable trusts set up by a now-deceased spouse when the estate tax figures were very different. This new law will make that a little more challenging, but not impossible in most cases.

Section 529 plans. Most lawyers have long assumed that money set aside for education of children and grandchildren probably was protected in bankruptcy proceedings — but the law was not explicit. It is now, at least for Arizona. If the education account is a “Section 529 plan” account, then it is not an asset of the person who set it up if they later file for bankruptcy — provided that the bankruptcy filing is at least two years after the account was set up. Incidentally, the beneficiary of a 529 Plan account is also protected in the event of bankruptcy.

It was a slow year at the legislature for those of us involved in estate planning, trust administration and elder law. That’s OK with us.

Physical Limitations Can Lead to “Vulnerable Adult” Finding

MARCH 12, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 10
Georgia Griffin (not her real name) moved from Kansas to Arizona in 1997. She lived in her own townhome in Sun City West, a retirement community northwest of Phoenix, until 2001, when she moved in next door to her daughter Barbara, who lived in Scottsdale.

Georgia’s story was fairly typical: she had lived at home independently until, at age 90, her physical ailments made it difficult for her to get along without help. The move to be next to her daughter was occasioned by her daughter’s concern that she was at risk living alone. One particular concern: after Georgia fell in her home, she worried that if she were to fall again she might not be able to get up, even to summon help.

After Georgia’s initial move to Arizona, daughter Barbara helped her with her banking, filling out checks and making transfers and withdrawals. She was a joint tenant with her mother on some accounts; several were changed from joint tenancy to “payable on death” (POD) to Barbara at some point. Meanwhile, Georgia’s other daughter Elizabeth was less involved — though she also lived nearby.

Shortly before Georgia’s move to be next door to Barbara, Barbara had purchased six condominium units in the complex where she lived. In fact, Georgia’s move was into one of those units. Elizabeth would later argue that the money for those purchases came from their mother’s accounts.

After Georgia’s death in 2003, Elizabeth initiated a probate proceeding and was appointed as personal representative of Georgia’s estate. She then filed an action against Barbara, alleging that Barbara had taken advantage of Georgia while she was a “vulnerable adult” — an important term under Arizona’s law protecting seniors and those with disabilities.

After a five-day trial, she convinced the judge that Georgia was vulnerable, that Barbara had held a position of trust with their mother, and that she violated that trust by using Georgia’s money to purchase her condominium units. The judge entered a judgment for $179,518.51 against Barbara, and imposed a constructive trust on five of the condominium units (ordering that they could be sold to satisfy the judgment). The judge also ruled that Barbara had forfeited any right to inherit from her mother’s estate; the judge did not impose treble damages against Barbara, which was an option available at the time (the Arizona legislature has since reduced the maximum penalty to double the amount of the basic judgment, though that would not have made any difference in this case).

The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the judgment. The key question raised by Barbara on appeal: how could the trial court have found Georgia was “vulnerable” when the evidence indicated she was fully competent? Can vulnerability be based solely on evidence of physical limitations?

The short answer: yes. The appellate judges ruled that vulnerability for purposes of Arizona’s exploitation statute can be predicated solely on physical impairments if, as a result of the impairments, the victim is unable to protect herself from the exploiter. Mental impairment is not necessarily required. In this case, according to the court, Georgia’s “diminished vision and hearing could also have made her more susceptible to exploitation, as they could make her less aware of her surroundings and the circumstances of any transactions in which she became involved, thereby making her less able to protect herself if targeted for exploitation.”

That is not to say that every transaction Georgia might enter into would be suspect. “A vulnerable adult may still have the capacity to transfer property,” according to the judges. In fact, Georgia had transferred her original townhome to Elizabeth and the family home in Kansas to Barbara; those transfers did not necessarily amount to exploitation.

There is a second interesting holding in the appellate decision, though it is perhaps less far-reaching in its scope. After the trial was over, and while one of Barbara’s sons was packing up his belongings to move out of the condominium he lived in (and which would now be sold), he said he discovered old letters written by Georgia. Those letters related how Georgia was helping Barbara and her husband purchase several condominiums so that they would have income when they retired. Barbara moved to reopen the trial to introduce those letters, but the trial judge refused.

That refusal was not error, according to the Court of Appeals. There was insufficient evidence that the letters could have been found by diligent search before the trial. More importantly, the letters would not likely have changed the outcome. Why not? Because Barbara’s (and her husband’s) defense throughout the trial had been not that Georgia permitted the use of her money but that none of her money was involved in purchasing the condominiums. The letters would therefore have run counter to their core argument. In re Estate of Gorsik, April 12, 2012.

There are several footnotes worth mentioning in discussion of the appeal in Georgia’s case. First, the decision is a “Memorandum Decision.” That means that, though the appellate court laid out its reasoning and legal arguments, the decision is not “published” and therefore can not (at least not usually) be cited as precedent in other, similar cases. It is in the nature of lawyers and judges to make and keep records, so one irony about unpublished (memorandum) decisions is that they are published,  can be read by anyone who wants to take the time to look for them, and are often cited as at least some evidence of the inclinations of appellate courts.

Another small irony: even as Georgia’s case was working its way through the courts, the Arizona legislature has been busy weakening the protections afforded to victims of abuse, neglect and exploitation. First, as noted above, was the reduction of “treble damages” awards to “double damages.” That, as it turned out, had no direct effect on Georgia’s case, since the trial judge decided that extra damages should not be awarded — but it does make such cases less attractive to lawyers with experience in exploitation cases, and it reduces the likelihood that any given case will be initiated in the future. Since then, the legislature has continued to push at the margins of abuse, neglect and exploitation cases; there is a bill pending even now that would eliminate the availability of an award of attorneys fees to the successful party in cases involving vulnerable adults.

Why would the legislature want to eliminate protections for vulnerable adult victims? Probably because some abuse, neglect and exploitation cases are filed against nursing homes, long-term care homes and medical providers, and they tend to have legislators’ attention. Vulnerable adults, by contrast, have a very poor lobbying record.

Arizona Probate Court Changes Coming in 2012

DECEMBER 19, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 43
It is not exactly a secret that the Arizona probate court system has been widely criticized over the past two years or so. The Phoenix-area newspapers have been filled with stories about alleged abuses of the probate process. Many of those stories have focused on practices in the guardianship and conservatorship systems, which in Arizona are controlled by the probate courts. During last year’s Arizona legislative session a number of changes were adopted; most of those take effect on January 1, 2012.

At the same time the legislature was acting, a committee of the Arizona Supreme Court was considering many of the same (or similar) changes. The courts have now released their final changes; some of them will take effect on February 1, 2012, and some on September 1, 2012. We will describe some of those changes, and what effect they are likely to have on existing and future clients, in a later newsletter. For now, we focus on the changes adopted by the legislature. They include:

  1. Fiduciaries are now expressly required to consider costs when making decisions about how to act, and to make reasonable decisions to limit those costs. The notion of a cost/benefit analysis, which we all apply to business and personal decisions in our own lives, has been adopted for guardianship, conservatorship, probate and trust administration proceedings. See Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-1104.
  2. Unreasonable litigants — including those who repeatedly file the same kinds of pleadings despite successive decisions against them — can now be prevented from running up probate costs, and can even be charged with some or all of the costs they do incur. The probate court has the express power to prohibit further court filings by an unreasonable party, and to summarily deny repetitive motions without requiring others to answer or argue. See Arizona Revised Statutes sections 14-1105 and 14-1109. The court rules which become effective a month later, incidentally, include a concept of “vexatious conduct” that is similar but somewhat more expansive.
  3. Arbitration of probate disputes is encouraged — but not (yet) required. Mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution are also permitted. See Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-1108.
  4. Guardians, conservators and attorneys must now provide written information about their fees — how they are going to be calculated and at what rate or rates — at the beginning of their involvement. Failure to do so will mean that they are not permitted to collect fees from the ward in a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding. The probate court has been given wider latitude to determine when a professional fee is reasonable and necessary. See Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-5109. Another fee-related change: attorneys are not permitted to wait until the conclusion of a case (or some later event) to submit their bills. Any bills not submitted within four months of the services are waived. See Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-5110.
  5. It should be easier for the subject of a guardianship or conservatorship — or his or her family — to seek appointment of a new guardian and/or conservator. This change reflects the legislature’s concern that even when family members are unable (or unsuitable) to serve, they should have some say in selecting the fiduciary. There are limits on how often the ward and family members may ask for changes, and the court retains the final say on any substitution, but the statutory changes will probably lead to more changes of fiduciary, at least in contentious cases. See Arizona Revised Statutes sections 14-5307 and 14-5415. The notion that family members — even family members who can not themselves serve — should have a greater say in selecting and monitoring guardians and conservators is sprinkled through other sections of the new law.
  6. Although most of the new law deals with guardianship and conservatorship changes, there are a few changes in probate proceedings and at least one in trust administration matters. The principal change for trusts: the beneficiary of a trust has the ability to direct appointment of a new trustee — at least if the trust was originally established by the beneficiary. See Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-10706. This section will not apply — at least not directly — to trusts established by someone else for the benefit of the beneficiary. It will apply to self-settled special needs trusts and other irrevocable trusts established by the beneficiary.

What effect will the statutory changes have on guardianship and conservatorship practice? It is hard to be certain until there is more experience. A few likely effects, including some that might be categorized as unintended consequences:

  • The cost of probate court proceedings is likely to go up in most cases. This is a paradox, since one of the original motivations behind the changes was to control costs, and especially legal fees. In some very expensive cases in recent years, that might well be the effect. In the vast majority of cases, however, increased requirements and a higher burden on fiduciaries and their attorneys will likely result in at least a small increase in costs.
  • There are likely to be fewer private fiduciaries willing to get involved in difficult or contentious cases. That, in turn, is likely to mean an increase in caseloads for the Public Fiduciary in each county. Not only will the Public Fiduciary see an increase in cases, but it is likely that the complexity of the average Public Fiduciary case will increase.
  • Some private professional fiduciaries may leave the field, or change their practices significantly. We predict (on the basis of no empirical data whatsoever) that another paradox is likely to be an increase in the number of licensed fiduciaries — and that both the average case load and the professional training and experience of private fiduciaries may well be lower in future years.

On January 18, 2012, Fleming & Curti, PLC, will host a training session for our clients who act as guardian, conservator or personal representative. We will invite fiduciaries who are not our clients, as well. Those in attendance will likely include both family members handling a single case and professional fiduciaries with large and complicated case loads; both kinds of fiduciary will need to know what the changes mean for them. We will cover both these legislative changes and the Supreme Court’s changes in rules and accounting requirements (and forms). If you are interested, you can pre-register by calling Yvette in our office (520-622-0400) and leaving your name and e-mail address. We will be sending out formal invitations in the upcoming week.

Arizona Legislature Adopts Probate Changes

APRIL 25, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 15
Last week the Arizona Legislature adjourned for the year. Just before closing down the session legislators adopted a number of new measures dealing with probate court, trusts and especially guardianship and conservatorship matters. Most of the bills passed by the legislature are still awaiting the Governor’s signature, but all are expected to be signed and to become law on July 20, 2011 (except that at least one of the new laws will be delayed until December 31, 2011). Among the ones affecting our clients:

House Bill 2211. This new law clarifies that some guardians have the power to admit their wards to inpatient mental health treatment. That authority has long existed, but has been difficult to actually implement. The new law aims to make it easier for guardians, and to clarify that the guardian also has the authority to consent to continuing medical treatment during and after admission. As was the case before the new law, this kind of authority requires a special court proceeding at the time of the guardianship hearing (or later, if mental health issues arise), and the mental health authority has to be renewed every year.

House Bill 2402. Two apparently unrelated issues are addressed in this new bill. First, the legislature has created a procedure for suspension of the driving privileges for someone who has had a guardian appointed. Second, this new law inserts a relatively simple way of appointing a guardian and/or conservator — at least initially — for the subject of a civil commitment proceeding. Under prior law both issues were unclear, leading to the oddity that the judge who heard extensive testimony about a patient’s mental illness and need for a guardian and/or conservator could do nothing about that need. Similarly, the ability of the court to suspend a ward’s right to drive had been uncertain, though prior law implied that the court might have that power.

House Bill 2403. Arizona’s legislature adopted the Arizona Trust Code (a version of the Uniform Trust Code), after a couple of false starts, three years ago. Each year since then the legislature has been asked to tinker with the provisions, and it has consistently agreed. This year’s technical corrections are mostly minor, and hard to work up much excitement about — but they are improvements.

House Bill 2424. Though this bill started life as a comprehensive revision of guardianship and conservatorship, it concluded its legislative odyssey as a stripped-down version. As adopted, it simply creates a Probate Advisory Panel to address needed improvements in the guardianship and conservatorship process. The Panel will include two guardians (of a child or sibling), two conservators (of a parent), one public fiduciary, one private fiduciary, one attorney, one judge and a clerk of court.

Senate Bill 1081. Arizona has long allowed you to name a guardian for your minor children in your will, and to let that person be appointed in a summary proceeding if no one objects. This new law permits a similar proceeding for your incapacitated spouse or adult child. The bill spells out a mechanism for lodging the nomination after your death, and requires notice to the allegedly incapacitated spouse or child. If they do not object, the guardianship can issue automatically.

Senate Bill 1499. This new legislation is the most far-reaching of the bills listed here. It was adopted in response to a series of articles in Phoenix-area newspapers about alleged abuses and huge fees in guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Of the bills listed here, this is the only one which does not become effective on July 20 — it takes effect on December 31, 2011, to give practitioners some time to figure out what changes will need to be made. Among the provisions of Senate Bill 1499:

  • Several changes attempt to address abuse of the legal process. Arbitration is encouraged and can be required. Repetitive filings can be sanctioned. In general terms, the losing party in a contested proceeding can be assessed costs and attorneys fees to be paid to the ward or estate.
  • Any guardian, conservator, or attorney who intends to seek payment from the ward’s estate will need to provide a description of how the fee will be calculated. That information must be provided with the first filing in the proceeding. Any billing must be given to the conservator within four months of the work being done or the fees will be deemed waived.
  • Wards will now have the right to request a new guardian or conservator, and the court must approve the change if it is in the ward’s best interest. A change of guardian or conservator does not require a finding that the current fiduciary has done anything wrong — this provision permits the change based on the ward’s wishes rather than misbehavior of the fiduciary. Any other interested person (a family member, for instance) may also request the change, with the same result.
  • The ward’s right to name his or her own choice of guardian and/or conservator is strengthened. The person named in a power of attorney, for instance, should ordinarily be one of the highest-priority candidates for appointment, unless there is evidence that that person has acted inappropriately.
  • As before, a conservator must file an inventory of the protected person’s assets. Now the conservator must attach a consumer credit report to that inventory.
  • The subject of a conservatorship and other interested persons can now request that the conservator let them review financial and billing records as often as monthly.

In addition, Senate Bill 1499 makes a number of other, less significant, changes. Fiduciaries and their attorneys, and anyone involved in a contested guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, needs to review the new law to see how it will affect new and existing proceedings, and what changes need to be made in reporting and practices.

Arizona Legislature Changes Format For Beneficiary Deed

APRIL 3, 2006  VOLUME 13, NUMBER 40

Five years ago the Arizona Legislature adopted an interesting new law. Modeled on a similar law in Missouri, the “beneficiary deed” statute permitted property owners to designate who would receive their property on death—much like a “payable on death” bank account. Now the state legislature has revisited beneficiary deeds, and made them even more flexible and useful.

One unanswered problem arose a handful of times under the previous law. What would happen if a person named to receive property by a beneficiary deed died before the original property owner? If, for example, a parent signed a beneficiary deed to “my two children, John and Mary,” and Mary died before the parent leaving children of her own, did that mean that her children would receive her share, or that son John would own the entire property on the parent’s death?

Effective this fall (the date is not yet set and won’t be known until the legislature adjourns) beneficiary deeds can solve that problem. Under a law signed by Governor Napolitano on March 24, 2006, all new beneficiary deeds must include a paragraph indicating which of two choices the owner prefers. The language required by the new law:

If a grantee beneficiary predeceases the owner, the conveyance to that grantee beneficiary shall either (choose one):

[] Become null and void.

[] Become part of the estate of the grantee beneficiary.

There are still a number of important issues to remember in the use of beneficiary deeds, and it will not be appropriate in every case to use this approach to transfer property. With some of the following limitations in mind, however, it may be that the beneficiary deed is a simple, inexpensive and useful method to avoid probate, especially in small estates. Among the remaining limitations for beneficiary deeds:

  • They are not available in every state. As of this writing, only Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio permit the use of beneficiary deeds.
  • An individual using a beneficiary deed will need to coordinate his or her estate plan as to multiple assets—it may, for instance, be necessary to keep track of beneficiary designations on multiple properties, several bank accounts, and a number of insurance policies and brokerage accounts. Anyone with more than a handful of assets should probably consider a living trust instead.
  • A beneficiary deed can be changed by a surviving owner, so in the case of a husband and wife (for example), the final distribution is not set until the second death.
  • The beneficiary deed provides no estate tax planning benefits for larger estates.

And what about individuals who signed an Arizona beneficiary deed before the new law was passed? Nothing in the law requires them to change their deeds, but they would be well-advised to consider updating the language to clarify what would happen if a beneficiary died before them. For those who might sign a beneficiary deed between now and the effective date, the best approach is less clear. Both the existing law and the new version require that beneficiary deeds be “substantially in the following form”—and then the form changes. Our advice: if you plan on signing an Arizona beneficiary deed in the next few months, expect to sign an updated version this fall.

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