JANUARY 2, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 1
Two weeks ago we detailed some of the statutory changes facing guardians, conservators and other fiduciaries in Arizona beginning with the new year. At the same time the legislature was working on those changes, the Arizona Supreme Court was considering changes to the rules and procedures governing probate court. That means more changes affecting guardianship, conservatorship, probate, and trust administration.
The Supreme Court rules changes have been adopted, but they are not effective at the same time as the statutory changes described in our earlier newsletter. Most of the rule changes become effective on February 1, 2012; a few of them will be delayed until September 1, 2012. Since some of the changes require continuing review and modification by the courts, some may be changed or delayed even beyond that later effective date.
Here are some of the probate court rule changes (all effective February 1, 2012, unless otherwise indicated):
- Every conservator must file an inventory within 90 days of appointment. That has not changed. What has changed is that (beginning in September, 2012) the inventory must also include a budget (unless the Court in individual cases waives this new requirement). The budget must be updated with each annual account. Expenditures in excess of budgeted amounts are not prohibited, but may require an update to the budget or even prior Court approval. Failure to follow the budget may subject the conservator to higher liability at the time of the annual account.
- At the same time that the inventory and each annual account is filed, every conservator of an adult must calculate whether it appears that the conservatorship assets will outlast the person subject to the protective proceeding. The precise calculation does not have to be shared with interested persons, but the result does; the conservator is required to explain what he or she anticipates will happen if the money is not sufficient to take care of the protected person for the rest of his or her life expectancy.
- The rules introduce the legal concept of “vexatious conduct.” If a litigant has been found to have filed repetitive pleadings for the purpose of harassing others, the court may enter an order limiting their ability to file future pleadings. Such an order might, for example, require the vexatious litigant to get the court’s approval before filing any new pleadings, or relieve the other litigants of any obligation to file responsive pleadings until the court has made an initial review of the vexatious litigant’s filings. Another new rule permits a party who thinks a given filing is repetitive to respond by simply pointing out that the pleading is repetitive; once that is done, no further response is required until after the court determines whether the filing is in fact repetitive.
- When a guardianship or conservatorship is filed, an attorney and a court investigator are normally appointed (to represent the subject of the proceedings and to report to the probate court, respectively). That does not change with the new rules. There are several changes about how those appointments will work, however. First, court-appointed attorneys, court investigators and guardians ad litem must undergo a training program to be devised by the courts (this is one of the requirements that is implemented on September 1, 2012). Second, court-appointed attorneys and guardians ad litem are disqualified from serving in cases where the proposed fiduciary is a client of theirs in other matters, even if unrelated. Third, it is now impermissible for the court appointees to end up serving as the guardian or conservator.
- Speaking of guardians ad litem, the new rules spell out in more detail what that position entails and when a GAL may be appointed. The request for appointment of a GAL must detail why special expertise is needed, and any order appointing a GAL must spell out the limits of the appointee’s authority.
- When a guardian or conservator is appointed by the judge, that fact alone does not give them any authority to act. The clerk of the court must first issue “letters” evidencing the appointment (which may require that the appointee file additional documents). The new rules imposes several changes involving the “letters.” First, every court order appointing a guardian or conservator must include a warning that the appointment is not effective until the letters have been issued. Second, every conservator must record a certified copy of his or her letters with the County Recorder in the county where the protected person resides and in every other county where the protected person owns real property. Third, a conservator’s letters must include specific language if sale of real property or access to other assets (like bank accounts, for instance) has been restricted by the court.
- Every person or entity appointed as guardian, conservator or personal representative must undergo a training program either before or shortly after appointment. This provision is not effective until September 1, 2012 (in order to give the courts time to create an appropriate training program). It does not apply to professional fiduciaries who have been licensed by the Supreme Court (they already have testing, training and continuing education requirements) or banks acting as fiduciaries. It does apply to family members who act as fiduciaries. There are no exceptions for people who have been named as personal representative in a will, for example, or for parents who act as conservator for a minor child whose assets are all in court-controlled bank accounts.
- Any lawyer or fiduciary who expects to be paid from a ward’s (or prospective ward’s) funds must first give everyone in the case notice of how his or her fee is to be calculated. The Supreme Court has directed that some sort of fee guidelines be adopted in the future; those guidelines will govern how attorneys may charge in guardianship and conservatorship matters.
- Annual accounts must be in the form prescribed by the Supreme Court. That form has not yet been adopted (it is one of the items that will have a September 1, 2012, effective date to give the Court time to finalize the forms), but preliminary forms have been circulated. They are quite different from the accounting forms approved by the Court for the past four decades, and will require significant retooling of accounting practices and software. Details are not yet settled, but will be adopted over the next few months.
- Alternative dispute resolution is encouraged. In contested proceedings, the parties are required to notify the Court within 30 days about their efforts to initiate mediation, arbitration or other resolution efforts.
- When a guardian has been appointed for a minor, the guardian has an affirmative duty to notify the court on the minor’s reaching majority, getting married or adopted, or upon the minor’s death. If there is no conservator appointed, the guardian’s notification must include a list of any property the guardian believes may belong to the child — and that information must be provided to the Court as well as the subject of the guardianship.
- Attorneys for guardians, conservators and other fiduciaries are required to encourage their clients to do as much of the fiduciary work as they can without involvement of the lawyer. Complaints have been made in the past about lawyers overseeing their clients’ work too closely, and at too high a cost. The new rules make clear that the responsibility is the fiduciary’s, not his or her lawyer’s.
Can we generalize about the effect and value of these changes? Not yet — or at least we can not generalize about how much they will actually improve the practice or lower costs. We can make a few educated guesses, though — and we will:
- It seems likely that the cost of most guardianship and conservatorship matters will increase slightly, as compliance with the new (and more detailed) rules requires more work.
- We expect fewer family members will be willing to take on what was already a difficult task, and will now become somewhat more difficult. That means more cases moving to professional fiduciaries.
- Our estate planning clients will be reminded again and again how important it is for them to execute living trusts, powers of attorney and other arrangements to avoid any need for guardianship or conservatorship proceedings. One small irony: even as the process for handling decedent’s estates has been streamlined over the past several decades in response to public and consumer complaints about costs, delays and legal micromanaging, the guardianship and conservatorship process have become more expensive, slower and more subject to Court micromanagement. That may have been necessary to protect a vulnerable population, but it certainly is an example of the doctrine of unintended consequences.
- Contentious family members and friends will have more access to the Courts, not less. Contested proceedings will likely become somewhat more frequent in guardianship and conservatorship cases. It is likely that the same effect will not be seen in decedent’s estates and trust administration cases, but we could be wrong about those predictions.
Here’s our final (and, we think, safe) prediction: the effect of these changes will be less profound than either practitioners fear or reformers hope. We will all learn the new rules over time, and many of us will refer fondly to the good old days, before 2012, when people just seemed to get along better and the process did not seem to get so bogged down in minutiae and micromanagement. We will be wrong about our glowing, Rockwellesque memories.
Want to read the new rules yourself? It’s a little hard to find and read them. First, the Arizona Supreme Court’s site for proposed rule changes is confusing and impenetrable, and does not distinguish well between recent changes and proposals and those from prior years (or, we assume, prior decades — once the kludgy system gets to be ten years old). Second, as of this writing, the “official” rules page does not show the changes (which admittedly will not be effective for another month). We will give you our best bet for temporary review; we will try to remember to update the online version of this article once the final rules make it to the official rules page. Look at the Arizona Supreme Court’s Rules of Probate Procedure page, and remember that you have to actually open and integrate three PDFs to figure out which rules are effective on what dates and where each change is located.