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Excessive Fee in Special Needs Trust Leads to Lawyer’s Suspension

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Lawyers are ethically prohibited from charging excessive fees. Period. It doesn’t matter if the lawyer has a fee agreement calling for an excessive fee. It doesn’t matter if the negotiated fee seemed reasonable at the time, but turned out to be excessive as things developed. It doesn’t matter if the lawyer’s intentions were good, the lawyer took on quite a bit of unusual risk, or the client was smart enough that he or she should have figured out the bargain was bad. Lawyers simply can not charge an excessive fee.

Of course that strong statement often begs the real question: what is an “excessive” fee? If the lawyer takes a difficult personal injury case on a contingency basis, and then collects a very big settlement or judgment, is it excessive if her fee runs into the millions of dollars? Is it excessive if another lawyer’s percentage fee turns out to be a $2,500/hour windfall for the work done? Not necessarily, but those kinds of analyses are often used to test whether a fee is excessive.

Let’s imagine a client (we’ll call her TG) is represented by an attorney in a personal injury action. The attorney signs a standard fee agreement with her, providing a 1/3 contingency fee for his representation of her. The attorney works hard, has some hurdles to overcome, but ultimately secures a settlement of about $75,000. Is the attorney’s $25,000 fee “excessive”?

Probably not. Even if TG becomes unhappy with her lawyer, and tries to fire him after the settlement. Even if the lawyer, worried about her ability to handle the settlement proceeds, works to set up a special needs trust — which limits her access to her settlement proceeds.

Now, unhappy with her first lawyer and her special needs trust, TG hires a new lawyer — let’s call him Everett E. Powell, II. She tells Mr. Powell that she wants to get the money in her special needs trust and to spend it in whatever way she chooses. She signs a new 1/3 contingency agreement with Mr. Powell, and he agrees to try to terminate the trust.

Termination of a special needs trust can sometimes be complicated, and may even be impossible. In TG’s case, that turned out not to be the situation. Mr. Powell wrote to the trustee, expressed his client’s wish to terminate the trust, and heard back almost immediately. The trustee told Mr. Powell that he, the trustee, would resign. Furthermore, he would exercise his authority to select a successor trustee by naming Mr. Powell to the position. Then Mr. Powell could, if he chose, distribute all the special needs funds to TG and terminate the trust.

The trustee warned Mr. Powell: if you do what your client wants, and she spends the money quickly, there’s nothing to stop her from turning on you and claiming you breached your duty as trustee to protect her from herself. Mr. Powell decided that was a risk he was worth taking; he received a little more than $44,000 (representing the entire trust balance), signed a check to himself for $14,815.55 and transferred the remaining $29,429.62.

Within three days, Mr. Powell had accomplished his client’s wish to terminate the trust (though, technically, he had not; there was still a $600 balance in the trust, which slowly disappeared over a four-year period because of bank fees). Mr. Powell did not provide any accounting or tax services, and did not exercise any discretion as his client’s trustee — other than to distributed the bulk of the trust assets to her and pay himself a contingency fee.

Was his fee “excessive”? Yes, said the Indiana Supreme Court hearing officer who heard his ethics case. The hearing officer recommended discipline, and the Indiana Supreme Court agreed. Mr. Powell was suspended from the practice of law for 120 days, and required to reapply for admission to the bar if he intends to continue practicing law after that four-month period.

When imposing discipline, state Supreme Court justices usually consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances. In Mr. Powell’s case, the justices found that Mr. Powell was not remorseful, did not have insight into his mistake, did not cooperate with the investigation, and lied to TG’s first lawyer/trustee (he had represented that he intended to manage the trust and continue it for TG’s benefit). On the other hand, Mr. Powell had not had any prior disciplinary history — of course, he had only been a lawyer for a few months at the time of his misbehavior.

What made the fee “excessive”? The Court reviews the elements of an appropriate fee and offers some guidance. But there is no clear formula. The Court makes clear that a fee in excess of the amount of work actually involved is not necessarily excessive. Nor is every contingency fee suspect. But when, as here, a minimal amount of work is required in a very short period, a fee of almost $15,000 simply can not be justified. Matter of Powell, September 29, 2011.

4 Responses

  1. Interesting subject. Colorado’s last legislative session passed a new Probate Compensation statute which, in part, deals with this issue. Colorado had a long standing Supreme Court ruling that you couldn’t have contingency fees in probate cases. The new statute overrides that case. But, even under the new statute, the reasonableness of the fee is still the crux of the issue.

    The attorney is always subject to Rule 1.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and, as Robert suggests, even where there is a written fee agreement, a reasonableness standard applies.

  2. I have mixed emotions. If a PI lawyer writes a letter and gets policy limits is that excessive. What is the difference?

    1. Fair question. The general ethical rule is that a lawyer’s fee must be “reasonable” even if contracted for. So a lawyer who literally wrote a single letter and then received a contingency fee of 1/3 of a large settlement amount would probably have to forego a portion — perhaps a large portion — of his or her fee. That would be true even if there was a contract, even if the client said “no, you keep the entire fee,” even if the lawyer was especially talented.

      State ethical rules will vary somewhat, but they all have similar conceptual underpinnings. Of course the devil is in the details — what looks “excessive” to one person may look “reasonable” to another, and both may have vested interests.

      Contingency fees are often analyzed by considering (among other elements) the other opportunities the lawyer decided to forego in order to take on the representation, the special skills of the lawyer, the risk borne by the lawyer (that, for instance, there might be no recovery at all), and the costs advanced by the lawyer. But even in this arena, excessive is excessive.

      Robert B. Fleming
      Fleming & Curti, PLC
      Tucson, Arizona

  3. As a consumer, I have a question about attorney fees. Is a standard 33% fee negotionable? To me this percentage is extreme in a PI case or another case for that matter. Many times the clients award must go towards unpaid medical bills. What is left for aftercare if the award is, for example $100,000. Is the client charged again for the setting up of a special needs trust? Also what is an ethical fee for setting up a SN Trust? What’s left to put into the trust? As someone who has been through an PI case (permanently injured) and the parent of a SN young adult, I’d like to know.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Bernadine Rupar

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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.