Posts Tagged ‘conservator’

Not Every Confused Senior Needs a Guardian or Conservator

APRIL 11, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 14

It is unusual to see an appellate court decision overturning an order appointing a guardian (of the person) or conservator (of the estate). Judges tend to be protective about elderly people showing even a little evidence of mental decline — often to the point of paternalism. It was refreshing to read a Missouri Court of Appeals decision last month that reversed a probate judge’s appointment of a conservator.

The legal story of Dave Burbank (not his real name) began in his 83rd year. He had recently married Cathy, after the death of his wife of almost forty years. Though he was retired, Dave and Cathy lived on a farm in rural Missouri, and actively managed the farm. He had recently entered into a handshake arrangement with neighbors for the sale and lease of a piece of land, and he had signed health care powers of attorney naming the same neighbors as his agents.

When a complaint was filed with Missouri’s Adult Protective Services, they conducted an investigation. Among the things APS did was to arrange a visit with a nurse practitioner; she reported that Dave was unable to complete a “clock test” — when instructed to draw a clock face with the hands pointing to a designated time, he could not follow the instruction. Based on that, the nurse practitioner determined that Dave “lacked the ability to make sound decisions because he lacked the ability to show insight or communication clearly.”

At a court hearing some months later, the local probate judge found Dave to be incapacitated and disabled. The judge appointed Dave’s daughter and the local Public Administrator to be co-guardians and co-conservators, and also ordered that recent transactions entered into by Dave would be voided, and that his marriage to Cathy was invalid.

Dave moved for reconsideration, and four months after the initial proceedings the probate judge conducted a follow-up hearing. At that hearing, the Public Administrator testified that, now that she’d had a chance to meet Dave, she believed that he was able to manage his affairs. Cheryl seemed to be helping with Dave’s needs and care, and acting appropriately. In fact, according to the Public Administrator, the only real concern was what seemed to be the transactions entered into with the neighbors who had filed the original petition — she thought that their handshake deal seemed to take advantage of Dave.

A doctor who completed a more thorough medical evaluation than in the original proceedings agreed that Dave was friendly, cooperative, engaging and generally capable. It was true, the witnesses agreed, that he was losing some ability to recall recent events (and even seeing some long-term memory loss), and that he suffered from mild cognitive decline. But he could sign a new power of attorney, designating his wife (or someone) to help him with more complicated transactions.

According to the doctor evaluating Dave, it would be appropriate to consider a court-appointed conservator who could slow down any “sudden, rash or misdirected financial decisions” that he might be manipulated into undertaking. Based on that, and (presumably) on the natural tendency to be protective, the probate judge decided to modify the original order he had imposed. This time, he appointed Cheryl to serve as the sole conservator, with her authority limited to preventing any transfer of sale, transfer or conversion of real estate owned by Dave.

Still not satisfied with the reduced court intervention, Dave appealed. The Missouri Court of Appeals considered his argument that there had been insufficient evidence to impose even the limited conservatorship, and agreed. The probate court order was reversed, and the conservatorship ended.

The appellate court noted that a guardianship or conservatorship must be shown by “clear and convincing evidence,” a higher standard than the usual requirement for civil lawsuits. Considering all the testimony, and the fact that the initial proceedings were initiated by the very people who appeared to have taken business advantage of Dave, the appellate judges ruled that the record was “devoid of clear and convincing evidence” of his disability. In the Matter of Barnard, March 22, 2016.

Would Dave’s experience be the same, or similar, in Arizona courts? It might well be.

First, Arizona law is essentially similar to the appellate court’s description of Missouri’s law on guardianship and conservatorship. As in Missouri, the Arizona rules require proof by “clear and convincing evidence.” That’s higher than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard imposed on most civil lawsuits, though not as high a burden as the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applied in criminal cases.

Arizona also has an additional requirement before appointment of a guardian (of the person) can be considered: the court must specifically find that a person in Dave’s position would be unable to provide for their own food, shelter and necessities without the assistance or intervention of a guardian. That seems like it would have been difficult to show in Dave’s case, and that would probably mean no guardian would be appointed — but it would not prevent appointment of a conservator or limited conservator (of the estate).

It seems likely that, if an Arizona court appointed a guardian, conservator, or limited conservator for someone with a story similar to Dave’s, the appellate court in Arizona would (like the Missouri Court of Appeals) reverse the appointment. But would a probate judge in Arizona appoint a guardian or conservator in the first instance?

It’s hard to generalize, since probate judges vary widely in their experiences, resources and attitudes. We would hope that a Tucson (Pima County) probate judge would not have appointed a guardian, conservator or limited conservator on the basis of evidence as flimsy as that introduced in Dave’s initial and subsequent court proceedings. Judges, though, are often protective — and sometimes overprotective.

Our bottom line: we admire Dave for his persistence and his ability to object to even the limited conservatorship imposed on him. We are proud of him, and of the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Conservator Has Authority Over Property In Another State

FEBRUARY 15, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 7

We live in an increasingly mobile world. That assertion is hardly controversial. The reality that America’s patchwork of over fifty separate legal jurisdictions can make for confusion and conflict is well understood by lawyers and observers. A recent guardianship and conservatorship case involving two states (neither of them Arizona) illustrates how that confusion can play out.

Ben Marvel (not his real name) bought a house in Spokane, Washington, in 2001. He let his daughter Melinda live there with her kids, and he stayed in the home from time to time — he also lived part time in Idaho. In about 2007, he moved in with his daughter and her family full-time.

At about that time, Melinda sued Ben for allegedly concealing her late mother’s will and failing to transfer her assets as directed by that will. As a result of that litigation, Ben agreed to transfer the Spokane house to Melinda; he signed a quit claim deed to her in mid-2007, and the lawsuit was dismissed a few months later. Melinda did not immediately record the quit claim deed.

Meanwhile, Ben’s son initiated a conservatorship proceeding in Idaho, and the Idaho court determined that Ben was an Idaho resident, that he lacked capacity to make his own financial decisions, and that a professional fiduciary should be appointed. Because Ben’s assets were limited, the Idaho conservator was directed to “facilitate” a reverse mortgage on his home in Spokane.

The reverse mortgage was signed in October, 2007, and the conservator received funds that helped pay for Ben’s care. Meanwhile, a few months later, the Washington court (where Melinda’s lawsuit had been dismissed) signed a new order and judgment confirming that Melinda owned the Spokane property; that judgment indicated that it would be nunc pro tunc — that is, that it would be effective as of the original date on which the lawsuit had been dismissed.

Ben died in 2011, and the reverse mortgage became due. The bank granting the reverse mortgage ultimately initiated foreclosure proceedings, and Melinda objected that the house was hers, that Ben did not own any interest in it, and that the Idaho courts had no jurisdiction to authorize a reverse mortgage over Washington property anyway.

To clarify this confusing story, this timeline might be helpful (we’ve added a sprinkling of dates not included in the above narrative):

  • 2001: Ben purchases Spokane house
  • Early 2007: Ben moves into Spokane house with Melinda’s family; Melinda sues Ben
  • June 28, 2007: Ben signs quit claim deed conveying house to Melinda
  • August 22, 2007: Washington court dismisses Melinda’s lawsuit
  • August 27, 2007: Idaho court initially appoints conservator for Ben
  • October 22, 2007: Idaho court directs conservator to facilitate reverse mortgage
  • October 25, 2007: Idaho conservator signs reverse mortgage documents
  • Early 2008: Washington court files judgment finding house belongs to Melinda, dates it for August 22, 2007
  • 2008: Idaho conservatorship terminated; Washington conservatorship takes over
  • March 12, 2011: Ben dies
  • December 8, 2011: Melinda finally records the quit claim deed signed by Ben in 2007
  • 2012: bank initiates foreclosure on reverse mortgage

There are several legal questions posed by this confused history. Can any individual secure a reverse mortgage (or a conventional mortgage, for that matter) on property that they no longer own? Can the failure to record a deed, coupled with the failure to get the court to enter a judgment, permit someone who doesn’t really own property to encumber it? Is there some explanation for everyone’s actions in this scenario? All are interesting questions. But the legal issue that catches our eye is this: can an Idaho conservatorship court make any findings affecting real estate in Washington?

In general terms, real estate is subject to the jurisdiction of the courts where the property sits, and not other courts. In Ben’s case, however, the bank argued that his Idaho conservator had the authority to handle all of his property and finances — regardless of where they might be located. Melinda, on the other hand, challenged the very power of the Idaho court to approve, direct, or even facilitate a reverse mortgage on out-of-state property.

The trial court in Washington decided that the reverse mortgage was valid, and that the bank could foreclose on the loan. The Washington Court of Appeals reversed, finding that “the Idaho court lacked authority to authorize a conservator to encumber the Spokane residence.”

The case went on up to the Washington Supreme Court, which agreed with the trial judge. The Idaho conservatorship proceedings, it decided, were entitled to “full faith and credit” under the U.S. Constitution, and the Idaho courts had considered and decided the question about whether Ben resided in Idaho or Washington at the time its proceedings were initiated.

The Washington high court also decided that, while the Idaho courts would not have had authority to change ownership of the real property in Washington, they could enter orders that indirectly affected ownership of that property. As an analogy, the justices noted that an Idaho court could enter an order in a divorce proceeding that directed one spouse to sign a deed to Washington property; the court’s power over the individual would permit it to affect the real estate in another state.

Once the state’s high court decided that the Idaho conservatorship orders were valid and enforceable, the problem became whether to find the mortgage itself to be valid. Since the deed conveying the property to her had not been recorded, the bank had no reason to ask her if she claimed some interest in the property. The bank’s reliance on the record ownership and the authority of the Idaho conservator was sufficient to find the mortgage to be valid. Onewest Bank, FSB v. Erickson, February 4, 2016.

Management of Risk in Guardianship and Powers of Attorney

DECEMBER 14, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 46

Imagine: you have just been named as guardian for your aging father. You are responsible for his medical care and decisions, his comfort and his placement. You were appointed, in part, because of your concern about his safety at home — you are thinking perhaps he needs to be moved to a safer location. Your job is to eliminate — or at least dramatically reduce — the risk that he might fall in his home, that he might wander, that he might not take his medications. Right?

Not exactly.

If you were grappling with this common-place scenario several decades ago, the answer might have been clear. Legal scholars and advisers generally agreed that the primary standard governing guardians should be to protect the “best interests” of their wards. That usually meant protection from risk first, and addressing emotional and psychic needs after physical protection could be afforded.

Let’s spin the hypothetical back in time a few years. You are talking with your still-capable father about his wishes. Presciently, you ask him this question: “So, Dad, if you were at risk of falling here in your home and the only way to be sure you were safe would be to move into a nursing home or assisted living facility, would you want to go?” What do you suppose he would have said?

He probably would have asked for more information. How much risk? How serious of an injury? What might the facility look like? What other limitations might he have to endure?

We manage risk in our daily lives all the time. We make decisions from brushing our teeth to crossing the street outside a crosswalk to skydiving or motorcycle riding — and we weigh the likelihood of injury from each action constantly and almost unconsciously. When put in charge of someone else’s care, however, it human nature to try to eliminate risk altogether. That is not the way your father managed his life before you were appointed as his guardian, and it is not the way you should make decisions for him now.

Over the last several decades, legal writers have developed a concept of “substituted judgment” to guide decision-making by guardians. The doctrine is misleadingly named — though it may sound like you, as guardian, are to substitute your judgment for your father’s, it means exactly the opposite. When making decisions for your father, you should start with a good-faith attempt to figure out what your father would want and substitute that decision for the one you would otherwise make on his behalf.

Does that mean you can never place your father in a more-controlled facility? Of course not. But it does mean that you need to make an open-eyed analysis of his likely wishes, and try to emulate his approach to the decision if he were making it for himself. Are there less-restrictive ways to reduce the risk to a suitable level (but not to zero)? What other negative effects might flow from the proposed decision? What would your father do?

Is this principle universally applied? Perhaps not, but it is clearly the law in Arizona and likely the rule in most other U.S. states. It is definitely the modern trend in legal thinking.

Does this concept only apply to guardianships? No — it applies to health care powers of attorney, financial powers of attorney, conservatorships (of the estate), and trust administration. In fact, it applies to even informal, unsanctioned decision-making, like when you consent to medical treatment as next of kin.

Do these rules apply only to big decisions? No, they apply to even (perhaps especially) the small decisions — visiting schedules, travel, caretaker changes and everything else.

Is it important that our hypothetical talks about your father? What about your mother? Your brother, your daughter, or anyone else? The same thinking applies to any substitute decision-maker for an adult — though it is obviously much, much harder to apply in the case of a person who never had the opportunity to develop a risk profile of their own. In other words, decision-making for your son who was born with a profound disability does not require you to try to figure out what he would have decided if he had been competent for at least a brief period after his eighteenth birthday — though it wouldn’t hurt to try to think through what a similarly-situated person might reasonably decide.

Does this mean you have to live with the real possibility of a disastrous outcome? No, it doesn’t mean that you must engage in risky behavior. It only means that you must realistically weigh the possibility of a bad result in protecting your father. Might he slip away from the care home, get lost in the desert and have a terrible outcome? Yes — but it’s not too likely, and probably doesn’t justify locking him into his room at the facility.

In other words, you might try applying a special variant of the “golden rule.” What decision would you want him to make for you, if the roles were reversed? Might he have come to the same conclusion that you are now reaching?

Good luck handling your job as substitute decision-maker. It can be emotionally draining, and physically tiring. You will find it much more satisfying, we predict, if you will think about management, rather than elimination, of risk.

Conservator Not Required to Unwind Protected Person’s Estate Plan

JUNE 8, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 21

When an aging parent begins to fail, and a scheming caretaker appears to take advantage, what should concerned children do to respond? Should they consider a report to Adult Protective Services (in Arizona, 1-877-SOS-ADULT, or 1-877-767-2385), or file a court proceeding, or take some other action?

The short answer is “yes.” That is, the children of a vulnerable adult victim of abuse, neglect or exploitation should make a report to Adult Protective Services (the above phone numbers or APS’s online site give more details), and consider stepping in to protect the parent with court proceedings, judicious use of existing powers of attorney and family support.

Sometimes court involvement will be necessary, and family members may be ill-equipped, or uncomfortable, about acting. In Arizona and in a number of other states, there is an industry of private, professional fiduciaries who can act to help protect the vulnerable senior. [In the interest of fair disclosure, Fleming & Curti, PLC, and several of the individual lawyers frequently act as conservator, trustee, agent under a power of attorney or personal representative of an estate — though we had no connection with the case we describe in this week’s Elder Law Issues.]

Mark Simpson (not his real name) was just the kind of aging parent described above. In the course of about a year, he had given his car title to a new caretaker, named her as joint owner on his bank accounts, included her as a beneficiary on his annuities and gave her a general, durable power of attorney. When the caretaker tried to use the power of attorney to change the “payable on death” designation on Mark’s remaining accounts from his sons to the caretaker, someone at the bank called one son (let’s call him Scott) to let him know something was amiss. Scott contacted Entrust Fiduciary Services, Inc., an Arizona company which acts as fiduciary in similar cases, and they began an investigation.

Entrust Fiduciary asked the court to be appointed as temporary conservator a few days later. Once appointed, they fired the caretaker and filed a report alleging that she had been exploiting Mark. They also gave formal notice of the proceedings to Scott and to Mark’s other son, Louis — who had not, up to that point, responded to their requests.

Louis objected to Entrust Fiduciary’s petition to be appointed as Mark’s permanent conservator, and so the temporary appointment was continued long enough for a hearing on the permanent petition to be scheduled and conducted. Six months later, and before that permanent hearing, Mark died.

Louis opened a probate on Mark’s estate, and objected to Entrust Fiduciary’s final report in the conservatorship. According to Louis, a conservator has a duty to protect heirs from the loss that might occur if estate planning decisions are not unraveled. Entrust Fiduciary argued that their only duty was to Mark, and that they protected his assets from loss during his life. The probate judge agreed with Louis, and ruled that a conservator has “a duty to protect the estate assets and the estate plan … includ[ing] not only the protected person but the beneficiaries of the estate plan.”

The Arizona Court of Appeals disagreed. While it is true that a conservator is required to consider the protected person’s estate plan, it does not follow that a conservator must protect the interests of ultimate inheritors. The conservator’s duty is to manage the protected person’s assets to help prevent waste and dissipation, and to use the property for the benefit of the protected person. It is not to protect heirs.

Louis had also argued that Entrust Fiduciary had not timely recorded its conservatorship documents, apparently believing that such a recording would have voided the beneficiary deed signed by Mark in favor of the caretaker. The court correctly notes that even if Entrust Fiduciary had recorded the proper documents before Mark’s death, it would have taken more actions to invalidate the existing deeds, and a conservator is not obligated to initiate those proceedings (though they are permitted to do so).

After Mark’s death, his son Louis had filed an action against the caretaker to undo the transactions she had initiated before being fired. That action resulted in a settlement, and an unspecified portion of the assets she had gotten were returned. That, notes the appellate court, is the proper way to determine the validity of questioned documents — not to have a court-appointed conservator favor one possible beneficiary (or group of beneficiaries) over another. Entrust v. Snyder, May 28, 2015.

Lawyer Has Responsibility to Monitor Conservatorship Administration

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Some Thoughts About Guardianship and Conservatorship in Arizona

NOVEMBER 14, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 39
Let’s talk about guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Before we do, though, let’s remember a couple of important principles:

  1. We only know about Arizona guardianship or conservatorship. Well, OK — we might know a thing or two about other states’ rules and procedures — but we only practice in Arizona. Our observations are not universally applicable. They may not even be universally applicable inside Arizona’s borders.
  2. As always, we simply can’t give specific case-based legal advice here, and you should not rely on this newsletter (or anything you read online or in books) to resolve your case. This is big-picture stuff. We can and do write about how the system works, what the rules look like, and what you might expect if you are involved in a guardianship and/or conservatorship matter in Arizona. Don’t expect to print out our articles, take them to court and argue with the judge, though. She won’t appreciate it, and neither will we. Plus it won’t work. Get good legal advice.
  3. One thing we’ve learned from years of law practice: people think they understand their own cases, but they get blinded to the nuances (or maybe they aren’t told everything about the contrary evidence or opinions) and tend to overgeneralize. We don’t think that means they are stupid, or liars — they are just trying to put the best face on their case, and that’s human nature. But it also means that if you say “aha — he hit the nail on the head and that’s exactly what my worthless brother is trying to do” we’d be likely to tell you (if we were your lawyer): “slow down. It’s not that clear.”
  4. We have written a lot about guardianship and conservatorship. Here’s one of our better (and most comprehensive) articles, a White Paper on guardianship and conservatorship. But it’s a difficult and confusing topic, with lots of information — and misinformation — out there.

Disclaimers aside, let’s talk about guardianship and conservatorship. Let’s start with some definitions of terms.

In Arizona, the word “guardianship” is applied to the court proceedings instituted to acquire legal control over another human beings’ person. In general terms, a guardian is authorized by the court to make placement and health care decisions for that other human being. Not every state uses the same word. Not every state has the same process to get a guardian (or whatever they call the office) appointed. But every state does have some kind of court proceeding in which a person can be appointed to manage the health care and living arrangements of another person.

In Arizona, the word “conservatorship” is applied to the court proceedings instituted to acquire legal control over another human beings’ finances. A conservator usually is authorized by the court to handle checking accounts, real estate, brokerage accounts, businesses, vehicles, horses, airplanes, family photographs, oil and gas leases — you name it. Just to keep the confusion level high, not every state calls this type of court-appointed person a conservator — some, in fact, call them guardians. But in Arizona, the person managing property and finances is a conservator.

Neither guardians nor conservators are “powers of attorney.” In point of fact, powers of attorney are pieces of paper, not people at all. But now we quibble. The person named to manage your property and/or your person in a power of attorney is properly called your “agent” or your “attorney-in-fact.” A guardian or conservator is neither an agent nor an attorney-in-fact. They usually have authority over agents and attorneys-in-fact, though it may require separate court action to make that clear, and it may be possible for the court to determine that the agent (or attorney-in-fact, if you prefer hyphenated names) still has authority even after appointment of a guardian and/or conservator.

Who can have a guardian appointed? Someone who is incapacitated. Their incapacity can be based on their age (minors — those under age 18 — are automatically incapacitated under Arizona law unless they are “emancipated”) or their circumstances. Generally speaking, parents are the natural guardians of their minor children, so they do not need to go to court to secure guardianship. The same is not true for any class of adults. So if your 18-year-old child has a lifelong disability that makes him unable to make responsible decisions, you do not automatically shift from being his natural guardian at 17 to being his legal guardian at 18. A court proceeding is necessary. Same thing if your husband or wife becomes incapacitated — you may need court proceedings to become guardian (if there is no power of attorney and there are things that need to be taken care of). “Incapacity” for adults requires a court showing of (a) a mental, medical or other condition that (b) affects the ability of the person to make and communicate responsible personal decisions and (c) makes it difficult or impossible for them to provide their own food and shelter without assistance. It is also necessary to show that (d) the appointment of a guardian will actually help accomplish that goal.

Appointment of a conservator is based on similar, but slightly different, grounds. First, minority is always considered a legally disabling condition, but parents are not the natural conservators of their children in the way that they are natural guardians. That means if a minor child comes into money, even if they live with both parents and all are harmonious and responsible, there is no way to manage that money without going through the conservatorship process. If an adult becomes unable to manage their money in order to prevent its waste or dissipation, they may have a conservator appointed, as well. Frankly, the definition of when a conservator can be appointed is a great deal less precise than that for guardianships, which can sometimes lead to problems.

An important reality for family members and friends to understand: if a guardianship and/or conservatorship proceeding is initiated, the court has been invoked and will not later simply step aside to let concerned — even appropriately concerned — family members take over. Once the courts are involved, they tend to stay involved.

That means that the cost of securing guardianship and conservatorship can be high. In Arizona, a lawyer is automatically appointed to represent the person who is alleged to be in need of a guardian or conservator. A medical report is required. A court-appointed investigator must go to the residence, conduct an investigation and file a report. There are significant court costs involved. Plus the process is complicated enough that the petitioner is almost always going to hire an attorney. That attorney’s bill is likely to approach half the total cost of getting the guardianship or conservatorship set up.

Much has been written, spoken and broadcast in recent years about the high cost of guardianship and conservatorship. The natural tendency of the system has been to make it more difficult to get guardians and conservators appointed, and to require them to provide more information, more frequently. Though that may be a positive development, it has the (presumably unintended) effect of making the process not only more difficult, but also more expensive.

So — guardianship and conservatorship can be difficult, expensive, even ineffective. Not always, of course, but there is a possibility and it proves to be the case too often. What can beleaguered family members do?

Most lawyers practicing in the field spend the first portion of any contact with a new client talking about how to avoid guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Did your family member sign a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney, a living will, a living trust? Are there other ways to get done what needs to be done? What bad things will happen if we (that is, the family and the lawyers acting together) simply do not file a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, even if one is warranted? Are there ways to get agreement from all the family members in advance, in order to hold down legal costs?

One important concern, at least in the case of adult guardianship and conservatorship: we will ultimately need to be able to prove that your family member has a medical, mental, emotional or other problem that prevents them from making their own personal or financial decisions. We will need medical evidence. Have you spoken with your family member’s physician, or psychologist, or other member of their treatment team? Can you get a letter from that person describing diagnosis, prognosis and any functional limitations? Without that, we may not be able to proceed. With that in hand, though, the process may be significantly streamlined.

Getting guardianship or conservatorship can be expensive, emotionally wrenching, and sometimes even ultimately unsatisfying. Sometimes, however, it is absolutely necessary. We just need to be sure you are prepared for the cost, the procedures, the limitations, and the possibilities in this type of legal proceeding. That’s why you hire a lawyer, after all.

Petitioner Not Appointed Conservator, Pays Own Attorney

JULY 11, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 25
When appointment of a guardian and/or conservator is necessary, the cost of securing the appointment is usually a legitimate charge to be paid by the ward’s estate. There are exceptions, but the general rule is that the guardian’s and conservator’s fees, together with the fees charged by the attorney for the guardian and conservator, can be paid from the ward’s estate.

What happens, though, when a guardianship or conservatorship petition is unsuccessful, or when the person filing the petition is not ultimately appointed as guardian or conservator? Often (but not always) the parties and the court ultimately agree that the petitioner’s efforts — even though not completely successful — benefited the ward, and that their reasonable attorney’s fees should be paid. There is no completely clear authority for that proposition in Arizona, however, and the result could be different in each case.

Last week precisely that question was addressed in a case decided by an appeals court. It was not an Arizona court, but from our neighbor Utah — where the laws are very similar. That does not mean that the Utah decision would be followed in Arizona, but it is certainly an indicator of what an Arizona court might decide in a contested proceeding.

Margaret Guynn lived on her own in Texas until 2009, when her son Donald Bruce Guynn moved her to an assisted living facility in Salt Lake City so that she would be closer to him. A few months later Ms. Guynn’s other child, Catherine Ortega, decided that mother needed the protection of the courts and she filed a petition seeking her own appointment as Ms. Guynn’s guardian and conservator.

Both mother and son vigorously objected that she was not incapacitated and that appointment of a guardian and conservator was unnecessary. In order to avoid expensive and protracted litigation, however, Ms. Guynn agreed that her son (not her daughter) could be appointed as limited conservator of her estate. That would have the effect of requiring him to file an annual accounting with the court for his administration of her funds, but it left him in charge of her finances.

Once the limited conservatorship was in place, Ms. Ortega asked the court to approve payment of her attorney’s fees from her mother’s funds. Mr. Guynn objected, and the probate judge decided that she was not entitled to the payment.

The Utah Court of Appeals agreed. It noted the general rule that, absent specific statutory authority, one party is not entitled to be paid by another for attorneys fees incurred in litigation. In this case, Ms. Ortega’s petition was not successful, and the appellate court saw not reason to order her mother to pay her fees and costs. Matter of Guardianship of Guynn, June 30, 2011.

Arizona’s statute is similar, although it has undergone a number of changes in the past few years. None of those changes, however, would clarify whether an unsuccessful petitioner might be entitled to be paid from the ward’s funds. Recent Arizona cases and intense court and media attention have thrown some light on how the courts might calculate the reasonableness of fees, but not on whether the payment might be made at all. The current statute with regard to conservatorships, Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-5414, addresses an interesting variation on the question: would Ms. Guynn’s attorney, or her proposed conservator’s attorney, have a right to recover fees from her daughter if she had simply dropped the petition? Probably yes, but there is less clarity about how the Guynn question might be addressed by Arizona courts.

Conservator’s Accounting Approved in Contentious Proceeding

APRIL 11, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 13
The Montana Supreme Court identifies him as “J.R.” to protect him from public identification, but it is possible to get quite a feeling for him, his family and the two different conservators appointed to handle his finances. In 2006, when the legal proceedings started, J.R. was 78 years old. His wife had died three years earlier, and J.R. had become confused and vulnerable. He had five children (and three step-children); one of them, his daughter Marsha, had filed a petition asking the court to appoint a conservator to handle her father’s assets.

Just before the hearing on the petition another daughter, Robin, arrived from her home in Massachusetts and took J.R. back to live with her. She did not tell either the lawyer representing Marsha or the lawyer appointed to represent J.R. himself. It would not be her final failure to cooperate with the Montana courts.

A probate judge in Helena appointed a local private case manager as J.R.’s conservator. Seven months later she asked the judge to relieve her from the role. She could not discharge her obligations, she told the judge, because persistent family interference and undermining of her actions made it impossible to protect J.R. or his estate.

The new conservator was a Helena CPA, Joseph Shevlin. The judge chose Shevlin partly because he had a long career and excellent reputation in the accounting practice, and he was known for his estate planning expertise.

J.R.’s assets included a Helena condominium filled with his personal property, plus a brokerage and a bank account. Mr. Shevlin was instructed to sell the condo and to use J.R.’s money to help pay for his care. The judge specifically instructed Mr. Shevlin not to provide any of J.R.’s money to his family members unless it was for his direct care.

Two years later several of J.R.’s family members (and J.R. himself) filed petitions seeking to transfer the conservatorship to Massachusetts, to direct Mr. Shevlin to create a trust and transfer J.R.’s assets to the trust, to remove Mr. Shevlin as conservator, and to order him to return fees he had collected during his tenure. The probate judge held three days of hearings on those requests (and Mr. Shevlin’s objections), and ultimately entered orders removing Mr. Shevlin as conservator, appointing J.R.’s brother as successor, approving Mr. Shevlin’s accountings and dismissing claims of breach of fiduciary duty.

J.R. appealed to the state Supreme Court, which affirmed the probate judge’s orders. The appeal raised several legal issues:

  • J.R.’s attorneys’ failure to call an expert witness to testify about Mr. Shevlin’s standard of care. Although every fiduciary is held to a high standard, professionals serving as fiduciaries are required to use any specialized skills. Mr. Shevlin argued that this meant a challenge to a conservator who is also a CPA meant that an expert witness was required to provide testimony as to the standard of care and any breach. The trial judge agreed, but the Supreme Court did not. No expert testimony was required when the complaints, as here, did not touch on specialized skills. Still, the high court noted that J.R. had not met the standard of proof required anyway — and so the probate judge’s misreading of the law was of no moment in his case.
  • The probate judge had removed Mr. Shevlin as conservator, and J.R. argued that by itself demonstrated that he had acted inappropriately. Not so, ruled the appellate court — in this case, the removal was clearly because it was in the best interests of all parties and not because of any wrongdoing by Mr. Shevlin.
  • J.R. complained that Mr. Shevlin had not provided funds for his care; that the condo had been held for too long before sale and ultimately sold at too low a price; that Mr. Shevlin should have agreed to transfer J.R.’s assets to a trust in Massachusetts (to be managed by his daughter Robin and a Massachusetts lawyer retained to help get J.R. qualified for public benefits). The trial judge considered each of those allegations and determined that there were good explanations for Mr. Shevlin’s actions, and that his work was made incalculably more difficult by J.R.’s family’s refusal to recognize the conservatorship or cooperate with him. None of them merited requiring Mr. Shevlin to return his fees, and they were not the basis for his removal. The Supreme Court agreed.
  • More significantly, Mr. Shevlin (a) did not file an inventory, as every conservator is supposed to do within 90 days, and (b) did not file his first annual accounting until 19 months after his appointment, and (c) sold some of J.R.’s personal property (apparently furniture from his condo) to himself. The trial court had disapproved of each of these actions, but ultimately decided that they did not harm J.R. The first conservator had filed an inventory (though it did not include personal property in the condominium) and J.R.’s daughter Robin had demonstrated that she was very familiar with the condo’s contents. The accounting was late, but it included voluminous explanations and backup. The sale of personal property to himself clearly violated a conservator’s duty not to permit conflicts of interest, but the items had been identified as things that might be abandoned or sold rather than shipped to Massachusetts, and Mr. Shevlin did pay full value. All in all, agreed the Supreme Court, these lapses did not rise to the level that would authorize ordering Mr. Shevlin to return his fees or to remove him for cause.
  • J.R. objected both to Mr. Shevlin’s fees and those of the attorney he hired to represent him in the dispute. As to the former fees, the probate judge ruled that his rates were reasonable, the amount of work and time necessary, and his actions appropriate. As to the latter, the probate judge found that it was necessary to retain counsel to deal with a contentious proceeding and that those fees should be paid from J.R.’s estate. The Supreme Court agreed on both counts, noting that “a large number of Shevlin’s fees and those of his counsel were attributable to the failure of some of J.R.’s children to cooperate with or even recognize the existence of the conservatorship.”

In the Matter of the Conservatorship of J.R., 2011 MT 62 (April 5, 2011).

 

Does a Guardian Have the Power to File a Divorce Petition? In Some States, Yes

FEBRUARY 28, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 7
The issue arises with some regularity. A married couple, perhaps in their second marriage. Adult children. One spouse becomes ill — often, but not always, demented. The other spouse, unable to cope, turns the care of the ill spouse over to one of the children. That child figures out that, financially, at least, the ill spouse would be better off divorced. That way, control of the ill spouse’s share of the couple’s property could be managed for the sole benefit of the ill spouse, and care could be assured. But can the guardian file a divorce petition?

In most states, the answer is not clear. A handful of states have explicitly addressed the question, with mixed results. The latest state court to face the issue is the Supreme Court of Vermont.

Catherine and Philip Samis had been married for almost a quarter century when Mrs. Samis began to show signs of dementia. Mr. Samis, a Canadian citizen, withdrew across the border to one of the couple’s homes, taking most of their personal effects with him. Mrs. Samis’ son from a former marriage stepped in, secured a guardianship of his mother’s person and estate (in Arizona we would call it a guardianship and conservatorship), and began overseeing her care.

Mrs. Samis is a U.S. citizen, and would be entitled to Social Security benefits under her first (now deceased) husband’s account if she were not married. Since Mr. Samis is a Canadian citizen, there are no Social Security benefits payable to her while she remains married. Her son decided it would be in her best interest — financially, at least — to get divorced, and to divide the couple’s property so that he could control how her share was spent.

Once a divorce proceeding was filed, however, Mr. Samis objected. He argued that Vermont law did not permit a guardian to petition for divorce on behalf of a ward. As with most states, the Vermont statutes were silent on the subject; there was a single reference in Vermont court rules to guardians signing divorce petitions, but no indication how the Vermont legislature felt about the possibility.

After the divorce court denied Mr. Samis’ objection, granted the divorce, divided the couple’s property and ordered Mr. Samis to make a lump-sum support payment of about $300,000, he appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court was thus faced with determining whether Mrs. Samis’ guardian had the authority to initiate the proceeding in the first place.

Ruling that a guardian’s powers are limited to those spelled out in the guardianship statutes, the state’s high court reversed the divorce court’s orders. The justices considered the holdings in a handful of states, including Arizona, and concluded that most do not permit guardians to file divorces.

The ability to file for divorce is intensely personal, said the justices. The only Vermont precedent that addressed the issue at all, an 1877 Supreme Court case, agreed; in that case, a person who had been placed under a guardianship of the estate (what would be a conservatorship in Arizona) was permitted to file his own divorce proceeding despite the guardianship. Now it is clear that in Vermont, at least, the guardian can not file the divorce petition for a ward who has become incompetent.

What about the other states? The Vermont decision cites several that agree with its holding, including appellate courts in Kentucky, New York and South Carolina. Courts in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have allowed guardians to petition for divorce, but have done so based on specific state statutes. According to the Vermont justices, only two states, Arizona and Washington, have permitted guardians to file for divorce even without the support of statutes clearly authorizing the action. Samis v. Samis, February 18, 2011.

As the Vermont Supreme Court notes, Arizona is one of the minority of states clearly permitting the guardian to file a divorce proceeding, even without express statutory authority. That is the holding of the Arizona Court of Appeals in the 1993 case of Ruvalcaba by Stubblefield v. Ruvalcaba, which we reported on at the time (yes, Virginia, there was an Elder Law Issues in 1993/1994), and which we have since described in more detail for our readers.

Distinguishing Two Kinds of Special Needs Trusts

AUGUST 23, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 27
It really is unfortunate that we didn’t see this problem coming. Those of us who pioneered special needs trust planning back in the 1980s should have realized that we were setting up everyone (including ourselves) for confusion. We should have just given the two main kinds of special needs trusts different names. But we didn’t, and now we have to keep explaining.

There are two different kinds of special needs trusts, and the treatment and effect of any given trust will be very different depending on which kind of trust is involved in each case. Even that statement is misleading: there are actually about six or seven (depending on your definitions) kinds of special needs trusts — but they generally fall into one of two categories. Most (but not all) practitioners use the same language to describe the distinction: a given special needs trust is either a “self-settled” or a “third-party” trust.

Why is the distinction important? Because the rules surrounding the two kinds of trusts are very different. For example, a “self-settled” special needs trust:

  • Must include a provision repaying the state Medicaid agency for the cost of Title XIX (Medicaid) benefits received by the beneficiary upon the death of the beneficiary.
  • May have significant limitations on the kinds of payments the trustee can make; these limitations will vary significantly from state to state.
  • Will likely require some kind of annual accounting to the state Medicaid agency of trust expenditures.
  • May, if the rules are not followed precisely, result in the beneficiary being deemed to have access to trust assets and/or income, and thereby cost the beneficiary his or her Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid eligibility.
  • Will be taxed as if its contents still belonged to the beneficiary — in other words, as what the tax law calls a “grantor” trust.

By contrast, a “third-party” special needs trust usually:

  • May pay for food and shelter for the beneficiary — though such expenditures may result in a reduction in the beneficiary’s Supplemental Security Income payments for one or more months.
  • Can be distributed to other family members, or even charities, upon the death of the primary beneficiary.
  • May be terminated if the beneficiary improves and no longer requires Supplemental Security Income payments or Medicaid eligibility — with the remaining balance being distributed to the beneficiary.
  • Will not have to account (or at least not have to account so closely) to the state Medicaid agency in order to keep the beneficiary eligible.
  • Will be taxed on its own, and at a higher rate than a self-settled trust — though sometimes it will be taxed to the original grantor, and sometimes it will be entitled to slightly favorable treatment as a “Qualified Disability” trust (what is sometimes called a QDisT).

So what is the difference? It is actually easy to distinguish the two kinds of trusts, though even the names can make it seem more complicated. A self-settled trust is established with money or property that once belonged to the beneficiary. That might include a personal injury settlement, an inheritance, or just accumulated wealth. If the beneficiary had the legal right to the unrestrained use of the money — directly or though a conservator (or guardian of the estate) — then the trust is probably a self-settled trust.

It may be clearer to describe a third-party trust. If the money belonged to someone else, and that person established the trust for the benefit of the person with a disability, then the trust will be a third-party trust. Of course, it also has to qualify as a special needs trust; not all third-party trusts include language that is sufficient to gain such treatment (and there is a little variation by state in this regard, too).

So an inheritance might be a third-party special needs trust — if the person leaving the inheritance set it up in an appropriate manner. If not, and the inheritance was left outright to the beneficiary, then the trust set up by a court, conservator (or guardian of the estate) or family member will probably be a self-settled trust.

That leads to an important point: if the trust is established by a court, by a conservator or guardian, or even by the defendant in a personal injury action, it is still a self-settled trust for Social Security and Medicaid purposes. Each of those entities is acting on behalf of the beneficiary, and so their actions are interpreted as if the beneficiary himself (or herself) established the trust.

Since the rules governing these two kinds of trusts are so different, why didn’t we just use different names for them to start with? Good question. Some did: in some states and laws offices, self-settled special needs trusts are called “supplemental benefits” trusts. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t catch on, and sometimes the same term is used to describe third-party trusts instead. Oops.

We collectively apologize for the confusion. In the meantime, note that the literature about special needs trusts sometimes assumes that you know which kind is being described and discussed, and sometimes even mixes up the two types without clearly distinguishing. Pay close attention to anything you read about special needs trusts to make sure you’re getting the right information.

Want to know more? You might want to sign up for our upcoming “Special Needs Trust School” program. We are offering our next session (to live attendees only) on September 15, 2010. You can call Yvette at our offices (520-622-0400) to reserve a seat.

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