Think Your Family Member Needs a Guardian? Proceed With Caution

Phoenix-area resident Larry Robertson (not his real name) was undoubtedly fading mentally, but he had made plans for handling his affairs. He had created a revocable living trust, signed a power of attorney and created a beneficiary deed. All those documents named a husband-and-wife team who were also his caretakers. They would receive his entire estate upon his death, and were put in charge of handling both his finances and his health care decisions while he was still alive.

Larry’s sister Betty lived in Ohio. She became concerned that the caretakers might be taking advantage of Larry, so she consulted with her local Ohio attorney, David Lynch. Mr. Lynch prepared a petition seeking Betty’s appointment as guardian of Larry’s person, conservator of his estate, and trustee of his trust. The petition claimed that there was an emergency requiring immediate action. It was signed by Betty and by Mr. Lynch — who was not admitted to practice law in Arizona. The petition was actually filed by an Arizona attorney, who did not sign it.

Once the petition was filed, an attorney was appointed to represent Larry. Another Phoenix-area attorney entered an appearance on behalf of Larry, claiming that he had prepared all of the questioned documents, that Larry had been perfectly capable of signing them, and that in fact Larry still had capacity and could make his own decisions about placement, caretakers and disposition of his property at his death.

The probate court held a hearing on the emergency petition. At the beginning of that hearing, Mr. Lynch asked to be admitted to practice law in Arizona just for the purpose of this one case — a process that is called “pro hac vice” admission. The probate judge heard some preliminary testimony, and discovered that Mr. Lynch had himself made an appointment with Larry’s attending physician under the pretense that he needed medical treatment, and that he had interviewed Larry’s physician about Larry’s condition. The judge refused to allow Mr. Lynch to be a lawyer in the case, ruling that it appeared that he might have turned himself into a witness instead.

Larry’s sister Betty then testified that she believed the caretakers might be taking advantage of her brother. In her petition she had alleged that Larry’s attending physician had told her that the caretakers seemed to be taking advantage of Larry; on the stand she acknowledged that the physician had not actually told her that he was concerned. The physician himself testified that Betty had asked him to say that Larry was incompetent, but he said that he had declined to render such an opinion.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the probate judge ruled that Betty had not shown any basis for a guardianship and conservatorship. The judge dismissed the petition, and ordered that Betty and her Ohio lawyer, Mr. Lynch, should both be liable to pay Larry’s original lawyer $6,470 in fees incurred in preparing for and conducting the hearing. The sanctions were imposed pursuant to Rule 11, a court rule governing civil proceedings which prohibits filing baseless proceedings.

Later, at a follow-up hearing set to consider whether Betty should be appointed as Larry’s trustee, the probate judge found that there was no basis for that allegation, either. By that point Betty’s entire petition had been denied; as a final blow the probate judge imposed an additional $9,651.04 in fees against Betty and Mr. Lynch — this time to pay the court-appointed attorney’s fees.

Mr. Lynch appealed the second award of fees against him. He argued that he had not been given a chance to show his own good faith in preparing the original petition for Betty. He had relied on Betty’s assertions, he argued, and that should have been all that was required.

Not so, ruled the Arizona Court of Appeals. When an attorney signs a pleading (as Mr. Lynch had done, even though he was not admitted to practice in Arizona), he or she effectively swears that he or she has made a reasonable inquiry into the facts alleged. Simply relying on the statements of the client was not enough — at least not when the witnesses to the documents were readily available, and Mr. Lynch could have simply interviewed them to see what they thought about Larry’s competence. “It appears,” wrote the appellate court, “the only effort Lynch made to verify Betty’s allegations was his inappropriate meeting” with Larry’s physician. The sanctions against Betty and Mr. Lynch, totaling over $16,000 in payments to Larry’s two lawyers, were upheld. Guardianship and Conservatorship of LaLonde, February 16, 2012.

In separate proceedings, incidentally, the Arizona Supreme Court admonished Mr. Lynch for practicing law in Arizona without being licensed in this state. The Ohio Supreme Court followed suit on October 14, 2011, publicly reprimanding Mr. Lynch in the same case.

There are at least two messages to be taken from the court-imposed sanctions against Betty and Mr. Lynch. First, it is important to make sure that you have some actual evidence of incapacity and an emergency situation before filing a petition to secure an emergency appointment as guardian for a family member or loved one. Pretty much the same can be said for a petition for appointment of a conservator, or for appointment of a successor trustee.

The second message is really addressed to lawyers more than to family members. It is not necessarily enough to rely on the assertions of your client. It is also dangerous to get so personally involved that you lose objectivity.Particularly in a time of heightened scrutiny being applied to guardianship, conservatorship and trust administration matters, it is important to have a good foundation before filing a petition that so deeply affects the personal life, independence and autonomy of a client’s family member.

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