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Arizona Court of Appeals Orders Review of Fees in Guardianship

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Arizona’s probate court system — and particularly the guardianship and conservatorship arenas — have been embroiled in public controversy for the past year. A series of essays by a prominent Phoenix newspaper columnist has taken the entire system to task over allegations of excessive fees being paid to guardians, conservators and attorneys. A few cases have made particularly compelling reading, with total fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars being charged to individuals caught up in the system.

One of those stories involved R.B. Sleeth of Phoenix. One of his two sons initiated a guardianship and conservatorship proceeding in late 2007. Of particular concern was the possibility that Mr. Sleeth might marry, and his son doubted both his capacity to enter into a marriage and the motivations of the woman with whom his father lived.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, the ensuing proceedings were bitter and protracted. The son seeking guardianship had a lawyer, Mr. Sleeth had a lawyer, and his future wife also retained an attorney. In the heat of the proceedings the probate court appointed another lawyer as Mr. Sleeth’s guardian ad litem, and she reported to the court on what she thought ought to be done.

Contested hearings were held in March and April, 2008, but even after the probate court appointed Mr. Sleeth’s son as his guardian, conservator and trustee the lawyers continued to spar over his proper care, the possibility of his marriage and the management of his estate. Another round of hearings was held in October of that year, and in December, 2008, the judge removed Mr. Sleeth’s son as guardian (leaving him as conservator and trustee) and appointed an independent, professional fiduciary.

By October, 2009, Mr. Sleeth had married, the court had appointed a new conservator and trustee, and Mr. Sleeth’s son had submitted his attorney’s billings for approval by the court. Fees and costs for the nineteen months totaled $270,213.36. The probate judge ultimately approved the billings (though reduced by $5,515.00), over the vigorous objections of Mr. Sleeth and his new wife.

In addition to the fees charged by Mr. Sleeth’s son’s lawyers, fees of $142,499.69 were requested (and approved) by Mr. Sleeth’s own lawyer, and another $38,508.67 (also approved) by the court-appointed guardian ad litem. In total, Mr. Sleeth’s estate was subjected to bills for attorney’s fees and costs of $445,706.72. Since his estate had been valued at about $1.4 million, this meant that about one-third of his entire estate would be paid to lawyers.

The Arizona Court of Appeals reviewed the approval of the fees of lawyers for Mr. Sleeth’s son. The court noted that no one had appealed the other two attorney’s fees, so they were not before the appellate judges. With regard to the fees charged to the guardian/conservator/trustee, though, the appellate court was clear: the trial judge needed to review them more closely.

Arizona’s probate code governs guardianship, conservatorship and trust administration proceedings as well as decedent’s estates. That code and the rules adopted by the courts to implement it are clear: the fees charged by lawyers in probate proceedings must be “reasonable.” What is less clear is what “reasonable” might mean in particular circumstances.

Although the probate judge had ruled that the fees charged to the guardian were reasonable, the appellate judges ordered him to reconsider, and to particularly pay attention to at least these concerns:

  1. One important element of determining reasonableness, according to the appellate court, is whether the representation ultimately benefits the ward. It is not enough to show that the lawyer was “successful” in the proceedings. Even though his son prevailed (at least temporarily), the probate judge was directed to consider whether the proceedings were “excessive or unproductive.” Both the fiduciary and his attorney have a duty to make a cost-benefit analysis, and to review it regularly, to determine whether it is appropriate to continue the legal proceedings.
  2. The time records included a number of instances of what the appellate judges thought looked like “block billing” which required further review. Although most time records are kept in tenths of an hour, and many lawyers impose a minimum of .1 or .2 hours for most time entries, the appellate judges were troubled by the large number of time records listing a string of activities and posting a .5 or 1.0 hour bill. The failure to separate out multiple activities into individual listings makes it difficult to determine whether those time entries should be approved, according to the court.
  3. Although the court did not find that improper entries were included in the time records, it did direct the probate judge to consider whether charges for such items as copying, faxing, emailing and file maintenance were appropriate for billing, or were really clerical work that would normally be part of the lawyer’s overhead.

Sleeth v. Sleeth, December 9, 2010.

Much has been written about problems with legal fees in court proceedings involving guardianship, conservatorship and trust administration. The Arizona Supreme Court has created a committee to review (among other things) billing practices and rules. Three judges of the Arizona Court of Appeals demonstrated this past week that they don’t need a committee to tell them how to determine the reasonableness of fees — existing probate law gives them (and the probate courts) the tools to regulate fees in contentious probate proceedings.

7 Responses

  1. what is consitered a reasonable fee a guarden/conservator can charge for services?How is this loged and recorded?

    1. Mr. Tuffli:

      It is impossible to generalize. Important considerations include the complexity of the work required, the relevant skill and experience of the guardian/conservator, the effect of the work done as guardian and conservator, local rules and practices, and a list of other factors. The Sleeth case in the underlying article described many of the factors and their application — though of course it may not apply outside of Arizona.

      One important principle: regardless of how any fee is to be calculated, it is wise for a guardian/conservator to keep detailed records of time spent. Those records are likely to become important in any action seeking approval of fees (and in Arizona, at least, must be filed with the Court).

      Robert Fleming
      Fleming & Curti, PLC

    1. It’s not clear what you are asking. If you are talking about an Arizona guardianship, it is unclear what you mean by “financier.” If it is not an Arizona guardianship we are unable to help and would direct you to an attorney in the jurisdiction where the guardianship is located.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

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Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.