Saturday, January 27, 2018
The South Dakota Supreme Court reversed and remanded a denied request to have an estate pay legal fees incurred by the guardian.
The question on appeal is whether a guardian’s attorney fees should be paid from a protected person’s estate when the fees were incurred in responding to pleadings to remove the guardian and to move the protected person to an assisted living facility. We reverse the circuit court’s denial of fees and remand to determine whether the fees were reasonable in amount and necessarily incurred in the administration of the guardianship.
The guardianship involved these players
Martin Bachand suffered a head injury in 2006. His son Michael Bachand was appointed guardian in 2007 and conservator in 2008. Notwithstanding the guardianship, Martin continued to live with his significant other and caregiver, Beverly Sears.
Michael and Martin began having disagreements, and Michael suffered a stroke in 2010, which required him to resign. A settlement agreement was reached under which Sears replaced Michael as guardian and Lyndell Petersen became Martin’s conservator.
Michael sought to remove Sears and retained a law firm
The attorney services included matters such as reviewing the entire nine-year-old case file, having property appraised, having Martin and his living conditions evaluated, conducting depositions, researching issues, and drafting court documents in response to Michael’s motion and petition. Following extensive preparation, a two-day hearing was scheduled. Although the parties and counsel appeared at the courthouse prepared to try the matter, the court urged the parties to confer and consider a settlement. The parties conferred and settled both disputes at the courthouse. Sears agreed to step down as guardian but Martin would not be moved to a facility. He would remain in Sears’s care in her home.
Sears incurred nearly $20,000 in fees and sought payment from the estate
Sears argues the fees were reasonable in amount and necessary for her, as Martin’s guardian, to respond to Michael’s petition and motion. She contends that as the court-appointed guardian, she had a duty to respond with particularity. In her view, she should not have to personally pay her attorneys when the purpose of their services was to gather evidence and prepare for a hearing that concerned the guardianship. She also contends that a number of attorney services related to necessary guardianship administration such as reviewing the file, preparing guardianship reports, obtaining evaluations of Martin and his living conditions, participating in depositions, and responding to subpoenas.
Appellees, however, argue that the services were not necessarily incurred and that the fees were not reasonable in amount. With respect to necessity, they contend these proceedings were necessary only because Sears failed to fulfill her duties as Martin’s guardian. They also contend that Sears obtained the services solely to preserve her status as guardian and personally benefit from household-expense payments incidental to the guardianship. Michael separately contends Sears misused her authority and failed to follow court orders.
The trial court denied any fees for Sears and thus
Findings of fact and conclusions of law are also necessary in this kind of case. After all, Sears may be entitled to some fees.
First, she appears to have prevailed on Michael’s motion to move Martin to an assisted living facility. On appeal, Sears argues that this was a resolution that Michael wanted and it was resolved in part upon an evaluation of a court-appointed therapist that was obtained during these proceedings. Second, we find it difficult to generally envision a situation in which the preparation of the guardianship report would not be necessary in the administration of the guardianship. Third, even Appellees concede that as guardian, Sears had a right to legal counsel. But we also acknowledge Appellees’ contention that Sears was either unwilling or unable to exercise her duties as a guardian. They also contend that Sears misused the guardianship trust. These contentions highlight our appellate dilemma. Without a resolution of factual matters relating to these conflicting claims, we are unable to meaningfully review the circuit court’s decision. We reverse and remand for the circuit court to address the parties’ conflicting claims and determine whether Sears’s attorney services were necessarily incurred in the administration of the guardianship and whether the fees were reasonable in amount.