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).