Posts Tagged ‘capacity’

Undue Influence and Limited Capacity Do Not Necessarily Justify Conservatorship

OCTOBER 31, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 41
In our legal practice, we frequently deal with individuals with limited capacity. Sometimes we speak of them being “incapacitated” or “incompetent.” Sometimes they are “disabled,” or qualify as “vulnerable adults,” or are subject to “undue influence.” But each of those terms means something specific, and some variations even do double duty (with two related but distinct meanings). A recent California case pointed out the confusion engendered when litigants rely on similar but different terms.

Aaron, a widower in his late 90s, lived alone after the death of his wife Barbara. He had no children of his own, though he and his wife had raised Barbara’s daughter Connie together after their marriage — when Connie was four. Aaron’s other nearest relatives were two nieces, Cynthia and Diane. He didn’t have much contact with Cynthia and Diane, though that might have been because his late wife had discouraged contact over the years they were together.

Connie was actively involved in overseeing Aaron’s care. She arranged for his doctor’s visits, went to his home at least twice a week to check on him, helped pay his bills and generally watched out for him. She was concerned about his ability to stay at home, and on several occasions she found herself summoning the local police to make welfare checks on her stepfather.

After Aaron fell in his home, refused treatment, and suffered a frightening seizure, he was diagnosed as having a subdural hematoma (from his fall). He spent some time in a hospital, but was anxious to return home. His physician noted that he had a poor score on the mental status exam administered in the hospital, and diagnosed him as having dementia. He was discharged to a nursing facility, with Connie’s help.

Aaron hated the nursing home, and the assisted living facility Connie helped move him to after that. He insisted that he could return to his own home. About this time, his nieces began to visit him, and they tried to assist. They disagreed with his placement, and niece Cynthia prepared a power of attorney for Aaron to sign, giving her authority over his personal and financial decisions. After he signed the document, he asked his attorney to write to Connie, asking her to return his keys and personal possessions so that he could return home.

Connie filed a petition for her own appointment as conservator of Aaron’s person and estate (California, confusingly, refers to guardianship of the person as conservatorship). While that proceeding was pending, Aaron went to his attorney’s office and changed his estate plan — instead of leaving everything to Connie, he would split his estate into three equal shares, with one each for Cynthia, Diane and Connie’s daughter.

The probate judge heard evidence in connection with Connie’s conservatorship petition, but denied her request. The judge found that Aaron was clearly subject to undue influence, and might lack testamentary capacity — but he didn’t need a conservator (of his person or his estate).

How could that be? Connie appealed, but the California Court of Appeals ruled that the probate judge was correct. At the time of the hearing on the conservatorship petition, according to the appellate court, Aaron was alert, oriented and able to describe his wishes. The fact that he might have been incapacitated when he signed the powers of attorney, or that he might have been subject to undue influence when he changed his estate plan, was not dispositive of the question of his capacity at the time of the conservatorship hearing. Furthermore, the mere fact of incapacity would not be enough; by the time of the trial Aaron had a live-in caregiver who could help him manage his daily needs, and that could support the probate judge’s determination that no conservator (especially of the person) would be necessary.

Aaron and his attorney also argued that Connie didn’t actually have any standing to file a court action in the first place. After all, she was his stepdaughter, and not even a blood relative. The Court of Appeals rejected that notion; any person with a legitimate interest in the welfare of a person of diminished capacity has the authority to initiate a conservatorship proceeding. Conservatorship of Mills, October 20, 2016.

So what do the various terms mean, and how are they different? “Capacity” (and “competence”) usually refers to the ability to make and communicate informed decisions. “Testamentary” capacity is a subcategory, and requires that the signer of a will must have an understanding of his or her relatives and assets, and the ability to form an intention to leave property in a specified manner. “Vulnerable adult” is a related term, but is used in most state laws to refer to a person whose capacity is diminished, and whose susceptibility to manipulation or abuse is therefore heightened. “Undue influence” can arise because of limited capacity, but refers to the actions of third persons which overpower the individual’s own decision-making ability. “Disability” is, perhaps, the least useful of the terms — attaching the term does not say much about an individual’s ability to make their own decisions, since disabilities can be slight or profound, physical or mental (or, of course, both), and subject to adaptive improvement in any case.

In Aaron’s case, it might well be that his amended estate plan will be found to have been invalid as a result of undue influence, and his new powers of attorney might be set aside on the same basis. He might even be found to have been a vulnerable adult and any transactions benefiting his nieces might be subject to challenge. But he apparently had the level of capacity necessary to make his own personal and financial decisions at the time of the hearing on the conservatorship petition.

As an aside, there’s another issue in Aaron’s court decision: the inappropriate reliance on scores obtained on short mental status examinations. Typically, medical practitioners ask a short series of questions (“What is the year?”, “Please repeat this phrase: ‘no ifs, ands or buts'” and the like) as a way of determining whether further inquiry should be made into dementia and capacity questions. Aaron variously scored 14, 18, 24 and 20 on 30-point tests administered by several interviewers, and both the probate court and the Court of Appeals seem to have thought that the results demonstrated his fluctuating capacity (and general improvement). Those scores are only suggestive of incapacity, and should be an indicator that further testing might be appropriate. There is no bright-line score for determining incapacity on the basis of those short examinations.

Ward Seeks Court Permission to Marry His Girlfriend

JUNE 2, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 20

We have written before — earlier this year, in fact — about whether individuals who are under guardianship have the ability to get married. When this question comes up (and it should be said that it is rare) it usually is in a context like that of our January story about “Cynthia Madsen” — an older family member, usually a parent, gets married (often to a caregiver) and that marriage is challenged after the fact. Sometimes, though, the story can play out in a different direction.

Matt Obregon (that’s not his real name) is a 27-year-old living in Minnesota. His parents have been appointed as guardian of Matt’s person, because he lacks capacity to make his own decisions about medical care and living arrangements. Matt has diagnoses of bipolar disorder and severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Matt lives in a group home, where he has responsibility for his own general housekeeping duties but is mostly free to come and go as he pleases. He takes several medicines, and the group home staff manages his medication regimen. The court that appointed his parents as guardian specifically gave them authority to give or withhold approval of any contract Matt enters into other than one for “necessaries” (i.e. — food, shelter, medical care and the like).

When Matt was about 23 he began dating Eliza, a young woman who is in a day program for individuals with special needs. Eliza has a young child (not Matt’s), and Matt and Eliza spend a lot of time together. Matt sleeps over at Eliza’s residence about once a month, and they get together about twice a week.

After a couple years of dating, Matt and Eliza decided they wanted to get married. Matt’s parents (remember that they are his guardians) did not think it was in Matt’s best interest to marry Eliza, and so they withheld approval.

The way this story would play out for most of the contested marriage scenarios we see would have been for Matt and Eliza to get married anyway, though they might have to go to a different county, or even a different state, in order to get a license, since Matt has a guardian. Matt’s parents would then have to decide whether to seek to annul the marriage, or initiate a divorce proceeding as his guardian, or simply let the marriage stand. But that’s not the way this story played out.

Instead, Matt filed a petition with the guardianship court, asking permission to marry Eliza. He argued that even though he had a guardian, he had the capacity to understand the nature of a marriage and the responsibilities that he would be taking on. His guardians disagreed, insisting that Matt’s limitations made it impossible for him to consent to the marriage.

Note that the issue before the guardianship court was not whether it would be in Matt’s best interests to allow him to marry. Instead, it was whether he had the necessary level of capacity to enter into a marriage agreement. Both parties agreed that a ward under guardianship can marry if he or she has capacity; their only disagreement was about whether Matt had the capacity.

Matt’s parents testified in the subsequent court proceeding, telling the judge about several recent incidents indicating Matt’s limitations. In one, he had shot out windows at a cabin using a BB gun. In another, he had grabbed the wheel of the group home van while residents were on an outing. The court also considered letters, apparently from one of Matt’s doctors, saying he suffered from a variety of conditions and had an IQ of 71. According to Matt’s mother, his functional ability is about that of a seven-year-old.

At the end of the hearing the guardianship judge ruled that Matt did not have the requisite mental capacity to “make or communicate responsible decisions regarding his person, including the ability to enter into a marriage contract.” Matt’s request to marry Eliza was denied.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals next considered Matt’s request, and it disagreed with the guardianship judge. According to the appellate court, the question is not whether Matt’s mental state differs from the accepted norms — the inquiry should focus on whether Matt has the capacity to understand marriage and to choose a spouse. The findings of the guardianship court should have been focused not on his diagnosis or his behaviors, but on whether he can comprehend the nature of the marital relationship, the obligations he would be taking on, and the benefits he might obtain from marrying.

A marriage contract is indeed a contract, noted the appellate court. But it is a different kind of agreement than a commercial contract (to buy a car, say, or to rent an apartment). Because marriage is a fundamental right, and because wards should be permitted — and even encouraged — to exercise as much personal autonomy as possible, any restriction on the ability to get married should be sharply limited.

Does this mean that Matt and Eliza can now get married? Not yet. The Court of Appeals sent Matt’s request for what’s called a “declaratory judgment” back to the probate judge for further hearings and a final decision. The next hearing, though, must focus narrowly on Matt’s capacity to get married, not on his diagnosis and behaviors. And one other thing: the burden of proving that he does not understand the nature of marriage rests on his guardians — it is not his burden to affirmatively show that he has capacity, even though he does have a general guardian. Guardianship of O’Brien, May 27, 2014.

Would the same standard apply in an Arizona guardianship court? It’s not clear — there is not much case law, and no clear statutory authority. But the Minnesota decision does reflect modern thinking about personal autonomy and self-determination for people under guardianship, and it seems likely that it would be persuasive (but not controlling) in a similar Arizona proceeding.

Court Annuls Marriage After Death of “Spouse”

JANUARY 20, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 3

Cynthia Madsen (not her real name) was, according to her doctor, already showing signs of dementia in 2007. In fact, her doctor wrote that she was not able to manage her own financial affairs. By mid-2009, her condition had worsened; her doctor wrote that she could not make decisions in her own best interests, and that her children should seek a guardianship because there was danger that someone might try to take advantage of her.

No guardianship or conservatorship proceeding was initiated, though — Cynthia continued to live at home with the assistance of a caregiver and a live-in friend named Patrick. In 2011 — almost two years after her doctor reported that Cynthia could make no decisions on her own — Patrick asked Cynthia’s minister to officiate as he and Cynthia got married. The minister refused, saying he did not believe Cynthia was competent to make such a life decision.

Things began to accelerate a few months later. Cynthia was admitted to the hospital . Cynthia’s daughter filed a guardianship and conservatorship proceeding. In the course of that proceeding, a court-appointed investigator interviewed Cynthia and wrote that she was incapacitated; the investigator recommended that a full guardian and conservator should be appointed. The next day, Patrick and Cynthia were married. Two days after that, Cynthia’s daughter was appointed as her temporary guardian and conservator, and moved her to a care facility.

As guardian and conservator, Cynthia’s daughter filed a petition to dissolve the marriage or, in the alternative, to annul it. The difference is important — dissolution of the marriage (what most of us still refer to as “divorce,” though the terminology changed decades ago) recognizes that the married couple are unhappy in the marriage, or that at least one of them believes the marriage is irretrievably broken. Annulment, on the other hand, recognizes that the marriage was never valid in the first place.

While the dissolution/annulment case was pending, Cynthia died. The divorce court promptly dismissed the dissolution part of the petition — a divorce can not be granted after the death of one spouse, since the marriage is, in a sense, dissolved by the death. But the annulment proceeding continued. Ultimately, the court ruled that Cynthia was incompetent to enter into a marriage contract, and so the marriage never was effective. The annulment was granted.

The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the annulment. It is irrelevant, ruled the judges, that Patrick claimed that neither he nor Cynthia was unhappy in the marriage. It is irrelevant that Cynthia died while the case was pending. In this case, there was clear evidence that Cynthia did not understand the nature and significance of the marriage ceremony, and the trial judge’s determination that there was no effective marriage was allowed to stand. Savittieri v. Williams, January 2, 2014.

At Elder Law Issues we have written about this question before. In October of last year we reported on a Wisconsin case in which an annulment proceeding was allowed to continue after the death of the incompetent “spouse.” At the time we noted that we had not seen Arizona cases with the same facts, but we predicted that the result would likely be the same in Arizona. The Savittieri case shows that we predicted correctly.

It is worth noting that the result in this new Arizona case did not depend on the fact that a guardian and conservator was appointed almost immediately after the “marriage” ceremony. The fact of guardianship and conservatorship, by themselves, would probably not be enough to invalidate the marriage. As we have previously noted (this time citing a Missouri case with illustrative facts), the question is not whether a guardian or conservator was, or could be, appointed — it is whether the person understood the nature of the marriage and had mental capacity to enter into the marital contract itself. Cynthia did not — the guardianship and conservatorship were based on that incapacity, but did not necessarily prove it.

Can a Person with Dementia Sign Legal Documents? (Part 2)

MARCH 4, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 9
Last week we posed the question, and then mostly wrote about competence (or capacity) to sign a will. We promised to explain more about the level of competence required to sign other documents. So let us now tackle that concept.

A person with a diagnosis of dementia may well be able to sign legal documents, at least in Arizona. We suspect that the answer should be pretty much the same in other states, but if you are curious about your own state you should check with a local attorney about how competence is determined.

Generally speaking, competence or capacity is usually analyzed situationally. That is, the question will be answered differently depending on the nature of the document and the circumstances of the signing. The general rule: the signer has to have sufficient understanding to know what the document is, and the effect of the signing.

What kinds of documents might be involved? There are a variety of contexts in which capacity can be difficult to assess, including (but not limited to):

  • Ability to sign a contract — say to buy a car, or build a home.
  • Understanding of a power of attorney, which might give the authority to another person to sign future documents.
  • Competence to sign a trust, which might have elements of agency (like a power of attorney) and testamentary effect (like a will).
  • Capacity to get married (which is, after all, a specialized kind of contract).
  • Ability to make medical decisions — including refusing medication, or either seeking or declining mental health treatment.

Each of those situations, and the dozens of others that might arise, will be judged differently, because the nature and effect of the act will be different. But we can generalize about several of the important rules that cut across types of documents:

  • Minority is presumptive incapacity. That is, a person under age 18 does not have the legal ability to enter into a contract, get married, sign a trust (or will), or make medical decisions for themselves. There are, however, exceptions — a contract for “necessaries” (food, shelter, etc.) may be enforceable if signed by a minor. An “emancipated” minor may be able to do some things that an unemancipated minor can not.
  • It may not be necessary to have capacity to do the underlying thing before giving the authority to someone else. What? Let us explain: a person who might not have the capacity to enter into a complicated contract might still have sufficient capacity to sign a power of attorney giving someone else the power to sign the contract.
  • Arizona’s legislature has decided that the capacity level required to sign a trust should be the same as testamentary capacity, as we described last week. That may mean that someone who does not have sufficient capacity to sign a power of attorney could nonetheless sign a trust, which gives even broader authority to the trustee. Odd result, but mostly theoretical, as it’s hard to find someone in just that circumstance.
  • Generally speaking, most observers think that the capacity to sign a will is a lower level of competence than contractual or other forms of capacity. But it might not be that hard to describe someone who adequately understands the nature of a power of attorney but does not have an understanding at the level of testamentary capacity.
  • There are few legal ways to determine capacity in advance. Challenges to capacity are almost always initiated after the signing is completed — and often after the signer has died, or become completely and undeniably incompetent. That means that evidence of capacity (or lack of capacity) is often being reconstructed well after the fact.

It’s also important to remember that we are writing here about competence/capacity, and not necessarily about the validity of documents signed by someone with dementia. In response to our article last week, one reader wrote to us:

“You covered dementia issues very clearly. Thank you! But what about the issue of undue influence in the presence of known dementia where, in principle, the demented person otherwise possesses testamentary capacity? How does the mix of those two aspects play out?”

It’s a very good point. There is a difference between capacity (or competence) on the one hand, and undue influence on the other. Dementia might make a given signer incapable of signing a document, or their competence may be sufficient to sign. But that same person might be made more susceptible to undue influence because of their dementia.

What do we mean? Let’s give an example — drawn from our considerable experience with the distinction. An elderly widower, living alone, has a diagnosis of dementia. He is nonetheless charming, witty and perfectly able to discuss his wishes. He can recall the names of his three children, and of his seven grandchildren. He can report their ages, the cities they live in and their careers (or status as students) — and he is mostly correct, though sometimes his information is two or three years out of date.

This gentleman’s daughter lives in the same city, and is the one who oversees his living arrangements and care. She does his shopping, hires people to check on him daily, takes him to doctors’ appointments, writes out his checks (he still signs them) and otherwise helps out. She also talks to him endlessly about how his other two children don’t deserve to end up with his house and bank accounts, how she really ought to be the one who benefits from his estate, and how his late wife (her mother) always wanted her to inherit everything. Eventually he agrees to sign a new will and trust, mostly to stop her constant harangues.

Was he competent to sign the new estate planning documents? On the facts as we’ve given them here, probably yes. Was he unduly influenced? Very likely. Was that influence facilitated (and the proof made easier) because of his dementia? Absolutely.

When did the daughter’s behavior cross the line? The legal system isn’t actually very helpful, since the answer is defined in a circular fashion. Her influence was “undue” when it resulted in her wishes being substituted for his. It was not necessarily objectionable (at least not legally) when she told him what she wished he would do, what her mother had wanted, or what was fair. But at some point she may well have turned ordinary familial influence into “undue” influence.

We hope that helps explain this complicated and nuanced area of the law. But we want to leave you with a completely unrelated, but important, note: Kieran Hartley York joined the Fleming & Curti family (literally) on Sunday, March 3. We are delighted to have met the little guy, and look forward to great things from him in the future.

Can a Person With Dementia Sign Legal Documents?

FEBRUARY 25, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 8
Let’s get the answer to the question out of the way first, and then we can deal with more nuance. Yes, a person with dementia may be able to sign legal documents.

The inability to sign documents (what is usually known in the law as “incompetence” or, sometimes, “incapacity”) is a factual issue. In order to know whether a person is competent to sign, say, a power of attorney or a will, one must know what understanding the signer had at the time.

Capacity or competence are tested a little differently depending on what documents the person is signing. The most highly-developed law of capacity, unsurprisingly, centers on the level of understanding required to sign a will. That standard is almost universally referred to as “testamentary capacity.” Although precedent for defining testamentary capacity goes back at least to mid-sixteenth century England, the standard is occasionally restated or reformulated.

Arizona’s Supreme Court most recently reviewed testamentary capacity in 1973. In that case the Court described the woman who signed a will as:

“94 years old at the time she executed her will. She had very poor eyesight and was deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other. As a result of previously broken hips, she used a “walker” to move around. Evidence shows that she was forgetful and did not remember the names of her great grandchildren. She spilled food when she ate and went to the bathroom frequently. She had a short attention span and it was difficult for some people to talk with her.”

The Court goes on to describe the three-part test for capacity to sign a will. A signer must have:

  1. the ability to know the nature and extent of one’s property,
  2. the ability to know the natural objects of one’s bounty, and
  3. the ability to understand the nature of the testamentary act.

Estate of Vermeersch, 109 Ariz. 125 (1973).

The standard of testamentary capacity, then, is quite low. Even people suffering from delusions or hallucinations have been found to have testamentary capacity. In an earlier Arizona Supreme Court case, the signer of a will had deteriorated markedly near the end of her life (and before her will was signed):

“during the last three years of her life she became coarse and profane. The testimony is to the effect that she shrieked and screamed at all hours of the day and night. That she mistreated her brother and cursed him, although he diligently performed his tasks around the house. That she became utterly careless in her dress, took to wearing very little clothing, rarely combed her hair or bathed, and on occasion was indecently exposed in the presence of neighborhood children. She stopped taking care of her house, stopped cooking, and ate from cans, although she fed her animals and chickens better food. She affirmed a belief in the ‘power of thought’ and practiced ‘black magic.’ She thought she could cast spells on people and tried to put a hex on the family next door so they would move out. She sat in the outhouse behind her home and watched the neighbors’ children from a peephole or stalked up and down along the fence between their property, glaring and gesturing to them and sticking out her tongue, in her efforts to get them to leave. She declared that the members of a church on the corner were praying for her to die so that they could acquire her property, when in fact, according to the minister, they wanted to move to another part of town. She was suspicious of people and built a fence around her house to ‘keep my enemies out’ and hung a padlock on the gate. In the last months before her death her conversation became incoherent and her mind wandered, she was forgetful and childish, and she seemed even more quarrelsome and ill-tempered than before.”

Despite that description, the will was found to be valid because the evidence did not specifically point to any relationship between her deteriorating mental condition and the terms of her will. Estate of Stitt, 93 Ariz. 302 (1963).

In yet another Arizona case, the will of a developmentally disabled man was upheld, even though he was said to function at about the mental level of a child of 10 or 12. Estate of Teel, 14 Ariz.App 371 (1971). In that case, the court quoted a standard legal text of the time for the proposition that “testamentary capacity is not the same as the ability to transact ordinary business.” That principle is still true today.

So can a person with dementia sign a will? Yes, so long as he or she can identify family, assets, and the purpose of making a will. A diagnosis of dementia may be evidence of some limitation in those abilities, but many demented individuals — particularly those early in the dementia process — can satisfy those minimal requirements.

What about other legal documents, like contracts, powers of attorney, deeds and the like? The answers will vary depending on the type of document, the circumstances of the signing and the nature and extent of the dementing condition. We’ll talk about those issues in a future installment.

Trust Created by Spouse Using Power of Attorney is Validated

JUNE 14 , 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 19

Suppose for a moment that you are trying to get your financial affairs in order. You have been married for many years, and your spouse is gradually losing the capacity to make financial or planning decisions. You are pretty sure you know what your spouse would want, but he (or she) is no longer able to articulate those wishes. Is there anything you can do?

That was the dilemma facing Ollie Phillips, an Indiana resident. His wife Donna no longer had capacity to sign estate planning documents — or to manage her own affairs if anything should happen to him. The couple had earlier signed durable powers of attorney naming one another as agents, and both had identical wills leaving everything to one another and, on the second death, to charity (Mr. and Mrs. Phillips had no children).

In early 2008, 18 months after Donna Phillips had been diagnosed as suffering from dementia, Ollie Phillips signed a new living trust and transferred all the couple’s assets into the trust’s name. The trust named Mr. Phillips as trustee and a friend, Elizabeth Shoemaker, as successor. It provided that all the couple’s money would be used for the benefit of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips until both had died and, after the surviving spouse’s death, everything would be transferred to Ms. Shoemaker. Mr. Phillips signed all of the documents using his wife’s power of attorney.

Did Ollie Phillips have the power to effectively change his wife’s estate plan using the power of attorney? The question would be moot if he had outlived his wife, but he did not — he died less than a year after setting up the trust.

Shortly after Mr. Phillips died, another friend was appointed as guardian of Mrs. Phillips’ person and estate. The new guardian moved to set aside the trust Mr. Phillips had created, but after two days of hearings the trial judge upheld the trust and ordered the guardianship estate to pay the trustee’s legal fees incurred in defending the trust itself.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with the trial judge. Of particular interest to the appellate court was the evidence adduced at trial about Mrs. Phillips having told the lawyer who drafted the trust that Ms. Shoemaker was “like a daughter” to the couple. The judges also pointed out that Mrs. Phillips remained the sole beneficiary of the trust until her death, and that there was no evidence that the trust was being mismanaged in any way. Evidence that Mrs. Phillips had more recently said that she thought Ms. Shoemaker was “money hungry” was not sufficient to allow the guardian to revoke the trust. The appellate court also agreed that Ms. Shoemaker’s legal fees to defend the trust should be paid by Mrs. Phillips’ estate. Matter of Phillips, May 17, 2010.

Does the Phillips case stand for the proposition that an agent can change the principal’s estate plan using a power of attorney at any time? No, it certainly does not. But in a specific case, with some indication of the wishes of the now-incapacitated person, and with a broadly-drawn power of attorney, it might be possible to make at least some changes. Among the safeguards in this case: the fact that Mrs. Phillips, if she once again became able to make decisions, could change the trust, and the involvement of a lawyer who interviewed her and worked with her to try to figure out how much her capacity (and wishes) could be protected.

Lawyer Suspended After Filing Guardianship Petition on Client

JUNE 22, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 45

A lawyer’s job is, of course, to help his or her client to accomplish the client’s goals. Sometimes, though, the client’s capacity may be diminished, and particularly in the elder law practice. What should the lawyer do when the client seems to be vulnerable to financial exploitation, or physical or emotional abuse? How far may the lawyer go to protect the client? When does the lawyer have a duty to take action?

The rules of ethics governing lawyers actually address the question. The American Bar Association has developed “Model Rules of Professional Responsibility,” which have been adopted (in some form) in nearly every state. One of those Model Rules, Rule 1.14, addresses how to deal with a client with diminished capacity. The central principle: a lawyer should strive to “maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship” with the client, despite the diminished capacity. The Rule specifically recognizes that sometimes it can even be necessary for the lawyer to initiate some sort of protective action — possibly including a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding.

Stephen Eugster, a Spokane, Washington, lawyer, thought he faced that question. An elderly widow had consulted him about the estate plan she and her husband had set up before the husband’s death. Although the plan gave considerable control to her son, the widow no longer trusted the son to handle her finances. She wanted to remove him as her agent and trustee, and try to make him return assets she thought had improperly been transferred into his control.

Mr. Eugster prepared new documents naming himself as agent and trustee, and had his client sign them. Then he approached the son about getting further information and transfer of assets. As it happened, the son was also a former client of Mr. Eugster’s.

After a brief inquiry Mr. Eugster decided that his client’s son was acting properly. He wrote to his client, suggesting that she should be willing to trust her son and let him once again take responsibility for all her finances. She responded by seeking advice from a different lawyer, and her new attorney sent Mr. Eugster a letter dismissing him and revoking his authority under powers of attorney and the trust.

That apparently set off Mr. Eugster’s alarm bells. He was convinced, he said later, that his client must not have been competent, and that the new lawyer and her new trustee must have exercised undue influence over her. Without consulting or even visiting her, he filed a petition seeking appointment of her son as her guardian.

Several months, one professional mental evaluation and $13,500 later, the client conclusively established that she was competent and acting on her own initiative. The guardianship petition was dismissed. The client, however, complained to the Washington State Bar Association.

After a lengthy investigation and hearing process the Disciplinary Board of the Bar recommended that Mr. Eugster should be disbarred. The Washington Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, softened the punishment to an 18-month suspension and an order that he repay the legal fees his former client incurred to defend the guardianship. Disciplinary Proceeding Against Eugster, June 11, 2009.

Mr. Eugster had argued that Rule 1.14 recognized that he might have an obligation to actually file the guardianship petition, and that he truly believed that his client was at risk. The Disciplinary Board pointed out that Mr. Eugster had not actually made an investigation to determine whether his client’s capacity had slipped since had last seen her several months before, and that in any event his Petition revealed extensive information obtained from his client during the representation. The Court agreed with the Bar that Mr. Eugster had violated his ethical duties in a number of ways, including acting against his client’s interest, seeking a resolution that ran counter to the purpose for which she had retained him, and disclosure of client confidences.

Four Justices dissented from the Supreme Court’s opinion. All four of them would have imposed permanent disbarment rather than the 18-month suspension of Mr. Eugster’s law license.

What might Mr. Eugster have done if he did think he needed to “protect” his client? The ABA’s Rule 1.14 actually provides several suggestions, none of which Mr. Eugster seems to have considered. As part of the Rules, the Bar offers detailed Comments that lawyers can look to when trying to resolve ethical dilemmas. Comment [5] to Rule 1.14 gives some useful guidance to lawyers who may be concerned about a client’s vulnerability. The basic idea behind the comment: a guardianship petition, while permitted, should be the last resort, after consultations with other professionals, family members, state protective services and other individuals or groups. Always the lawyer should keep in mind the client’s wishes, values, best interests and goals .

Ironically, the lawyer who took over Mr. Eugster’s client seems to have reviewed Rule 1.14 and the Comments — and acted accordingly. One of the suggestions made by the Comment is that the lawyer might seek out appropriate professional services and use powers of attorney and other protective arrangements short of court action. The new lawyer’s approach followed those suggestions perfectly: he had the client sign a new trust and powers of attorney, naming a professional fiduciary to manage her affairs. That allowed the client’s interests to be protected without compromising her desire not to extend her son’s authority over her personal or financial affairs.

Proponent of Invalid Will Must Pay Attorney’s Fees to Family

JANUARY 19, 2004 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 29

Edmond and Elma Crittell befriended Violet Houssien and, according to Ms. Houssien’s family, set about getting the older woman to write a new will. Some of the evidence in the later will contest proceeding indicated that they may have even forged her signature on the will and, in a bizarre twist, burglarized the office of the notary public in an attempt to hide their fraud. Even if Ms. Houssien actually did sign the will, the Alaska courts later ruled that she had lacked capacity to do so, and that the Crittells exercised undue influence over her.

After Ms. Houssien’s death the Crittells sought to have the will they had prepared admitted to probate. Not surprisingly, it would have left the bulk of her $1.59 million estate to Elma Crittell. Also unsurprising was the objection lodged by family members.

After a two-week trial to the court, the will was found to be a forgery and the Crittells to have exercised undue influence over Ms. Houssien. The court also ordered the Crittells to pay the attorney’s fees and costs for the family members.

On its first trip to the Alaska Supreme Court, the case resulted in a mixed holding. The trial court’s findings about the will’s invalidity were upheld, but the award of attorney’s fees was set aside and remanded. The state high court ruled that there is no automatic right under state law for a successful will contestant to recover attorney’s fees, though it did not rule out the possibility that fees could be awarded for “vexatious or bad faith conduct.”

After the appeal was completed the trial judge reconsidered his earlier award of attorney’s fees. Finding that the Crittells had acted vexatiously and in bad faith, he ordered that they pay fees totaling $338,668.35. The Crittells again appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

In its second review of the case, the state high court reviewed the history of the litigation and the positions of the parties before and during the trial. The justices found that there was considerable evidence that the Crittells had acted in bad faith, and that it was proper for the trial judge to consider their fraudulent acts.

The Crittells argued that the effect of the court’s ruling was to impose punitive damages against them, and that there is no provision for such awards in probate cases. The high court disagreed with this argument, as well, though it expressed concern about the imposition of “financially ruinous” fee awards. However, if litigants proceed in bad faith, the entire cost of opposing counsel can be charged against them. Crittell v. Bingo, January 2, 2004.

Appointment of “Next Friend” In Divorce Reversed on Appeal

DECEMBER 8, 2003 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 23

It is a common problem facing lawyers and litigants. What can be done if one of the parties to a lawsuit is a minor, or an incapacitated adult? Who makes decisions about the litigation if one party lacks legal capacity to handle their own financial and personal decisions?

In many courts, the civil litigation rules permit appointment of a “guardian ad litem,” an “attorney ad litem” or a “next friend” to guide lawyers and the court itself on how to proceed. One problem with those rules, however, is that they seldom make clear how such a person is to be appointed, who would qualify or what authority they might have. A recent case in Texas illustrates the confusion.

Alejandro Saldarriaga filed for divorce from his wife Debra Ann in late 1999. Both spouses had lawyers, and the litigation proceeded for three years without resolution of child custody, child support or property division issues. Finally Debra Ann Saldarriaga’s attorney, Lin Zintsmaster, decided her client was mentally incompetent to complete the divorce.

Ms. Zintsmaster filed a motion asking for appointment of someone to make decisions about how to proceed with the divorce litigation. The judge appointed local attorney Jerry Jones to be Ms. Saldarriaga’s “next friend,” and to make decisions about how the divorce should be completed.

Mr. Jones, in turn, filed a petition for appointment as Ms. Saldarriaga’s guardian, and yet another lawyer was appointed to represent her in that proceeding. Meanwhile Mr. Jones went ahead and negotiated a resolution of the remaining child custody, child support and financial decisions in the divorce proceeding.

Ms. Saldarriaga’s doctor wrote that she was not incapacitated, and the guardianship proceeding was dismissed. Meanwhile, however, the divorce court accepted the settlement negotiated by her “next friend” Jerry Jones, and the divorce was finalized. Ms. Saldarriaga appealed, arguing that the court never had authority to appoint someone to take over handling her case.

The Texas Court of Appeals in Austin agreed, and set aside the negotiated settlement. The court noted that there is a mechanism for appointment of a guardian, and the procedure must be followed in order to protect the rights of people who are alleged to be incapacitated. Since the powers of a “next friend” look so much like the authority given to a guardian, said the judges, the procedures must be similar. The divorce court simply did not have authority to name someone to take over Ms. Saldarriaga’s case. Saldarriaga v. Saldarriaga, November 13, 2003.

Although Mr. Jones testified in the divorce proceeding about the difference between the titles “guardian ad litem,” “attorney ad litem” and “next friend,” there is no clear consensus among practitioners about the distinctions. A “guardian ad litem” is someone, not necessarily an attorney, appointed to be an incapacitated person’s “guardian” for the limited purpose of a pending legal proceeding. Most practitioners think that a “guardian ad litem” should counsel the attorney as to what would be in the client’s best interests, although many would argue that the proper role is to help figure out what the incapacitated client wants to accomplish, and whether those goals are reasonable. An “attorney ad litem,” a term not used in most jurisdictions, fulfills a similar function but is necessarily an attorney; the role implies that the “attorney ad litem” will argue for what is in the patient’s legal best interest, not just his or her personal best interest.

Finally, the “next friend”–the choice used by the divorce judge in the Saldarriaga case–is the least well-defined of all. Many states permit a lawsuit to be brought by a “next friend” (Arizona is one), but the term is usually used for litigation filed on behalf of minor children by their parents. As Debra Ann Saldarriaga’s case makes clear, neither it nor either of the other designations should be used as a substitute for a real court determination of the ability of a client to make his or her own legal decisions.

Massachusetts High Court Limits Wards’ Right to Counsel

JULY 28, 2003 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 4

Is one who has been determined legally incapacitated and in need of a guardian able to revisit the court’s determination or challenge her guardian’s actions? Yes, wards may request the restoration of capacity and/or challenge the fitness of the guardian. In at least one state, however, wards are not entitled to legal representation unless a proceeding has been brought to terminate a guardianship or remove a guardian. Guardianship of Lon Hocker, July 10, 2003.

In August 1999, Priscilla Claman petitioned the Barnstable Division of the Family and Probate Court to be appointed permanent guardian of her 88 year-old father, Lon Hocker, Jr., who contested the need for a guardian. The court appointed attorney Kathy Pett Ryman to represent Mr. Hocker. After a trial the court found that Mr. Hocker suffered from multi-infarct dementia and was unable to care for himself by reason of mental illness. Ms. Claman was appointed to serve as guardian. The court admonished family members not to interfere with the guardian’s ability to implement a treatment plan for Mr. Hocker.

Over a year later the court vacated Ms. Ryman’s appointment as Mr. Hocker’s attorney. The next day, Ms. Ryman entered a notice of appearance on his behalf with no other pleading—she did not seek to remove the guardian or end the guardianship. Mr. Hocker’s guardian moved to strike the notice of appearance.

Ms. Ryman and the ward’s son opposed the guardian’s motion. After a hearing the court made note of Mr. Hocker’s diminished level of cognitive function and granted the guardian’s motion to prohibit Mr. Hocker’s attorney from appearing on his behalf. The judge, who seemed to think that the ward’s son was just trying to keep tabs on his sister, noted that any concerns about the guardian’s fitness could be addressed in an action to remove her pursuant to state statute. Ms. Ryman and the ward’s son appealed this ruling.

The Massachusetts high Court ruled that apart from an adversarial action “due process does not require that a ward be able to consult with counsel about his guardianship.” The Court emphasized, however, that the ward and his family members “remain free to challenge Claman’s fitness as guardian or the ward’s continued need for a permanent guardian …” Left unanswered was how he might accomplish that task without the aid of counsel.

In Arizona attorneys for wards (especially those with mental health issues) often have extended appointments. It is unlikely that a lawyer’s attempt to appear for even an incapacitated ward would be rejected.

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