On April 30, 2010, Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch issued Order 2010-52, the “Establishment of the Committee on Improving Judicial Oversight and Processing of Probate Court Matters,” which, appointed 17 persons to look at the state’s probate court system and how it protects Arizona’s most vulnerable citizens.
The Chief Justice wants the Committee to revisit “Judicial Oversight of Probate Matters,” and conduct“an examination of models and “best practices” from other states.” First on the Committee’s agenda is a current situational analysis of procedures, court rules, statutes and training and then to make recommendations for any necessary improvements.
And thanks to the relentless brow-beating given the Maricopa County probate court system by Arizona Republic Columnist Laurie Roberts, see for example, Probate court asked to sanction attorneys in Marie Long case, the Committee is also tasked with developing statewide fee guidelines for professional fiduciaries and court-appointed attorneys in probate matters to help judicial officers determine the reasonableness of fees charged. Additionally, recommendations are anticipated for a fee dispute resolution process, including alternative dispute resolution options.
‘What problem?’ says the snark-master.
It’s good news the state’s highest court has deemed it necessary to take another look at the current situation in probate court. Not long ago, at a continuing legal education seminar at the state bar’s offices, one of the presenters, a probate court system insider, snarkily and superciliously sniffed that Laurie Roberts didn’t know what she was talking about in her many crusading essays critical of the probate system and how fiduciaries and lawyers eviscerate the estates of the wards they are supposed to be protecting.
Elder advocacy gadflies would have helped the Committee’s work.
Six of the 17 members on Court’s Committee are judges. There is one attorney/public member and one member from AARP. The other 9 include court or state attorneys, court staff, two public fiduciaries and a private licensed fiduciary as well as a child welfare administrator, and a state bar representative.
Moreover, some of them even see benefits in promoting collaboration between courts and the aging community’s advocates. See, for example, Good Guardianship, a brochure offering aging community collaborative practice recommendations for courts to follow to improve processes. Additionally, a host of reform-minded organizations like the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse also offer their own prescriptions to safeguard wards from voracious fiduciaries, rapacious lawyers, and probate courts that are too busy, too overworked, too underfunded or too insular.
Still searching for solutions.
Unfortunately, the problem of lax oversight of guardians, fiduciaries, and lawyers is all too familiar. Elder financial abuse is a national problem, which will worsen as the U.S. population continues to age and the opportunities for nefariousness increase. The ABA Commission on Law and Aging and American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are resource-deep with information, analyses, and prescriptions on the subject. One of the best overviews on the subject of court-monitoring was done through AARP and is highly-recommended reading, even if some of the data is now several years old, Guardianship Monitoring: A National Survey of Court Practices. The National Center for State Courts has its helpful Probate Courts Resource Guide and on its website, the National College of Probate Judges has a chronological overview of the subject of Guardianship Monitoring.
Guardians for Profit.
Just 5 years ago, Journalists Robin Fields, Evelyn Larrubia and Jack Leonard of the Los Angeles Times, won the Scripps-Howard Foundation’s National Journalism Award for their superb multi-part series entitled “Guardians for Profit,” which extensively examined California’s conservator industry and the state’s “frequent failure to protect vulnerable seniors from those hired to manage their affairs.” The report included When a Family Matter Turns Into a Business and Missing Money, Unpaid Bills and Forgotten Clients and Judges’ Inaction, Inattention Leave Many Seniors at Risk .