Legislation to protect incapacitated adults in California from excessive legal fees when their lives and finances are under court supervision sailed through a key committee Tuesday and is headed to the Senate floor.
Members of the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for Senate Bill 156 — a bill inspired by 38-year-old Danny Reed’s years-long battle with a court-appointed estate manager and bevy of lawyers. Together, their hundreds of thousands of dollars of fees would have gobbled up most of the San Jose man’s life savings.
“When you see what really happened, everyone agreed,” the bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose, said after the hearing. “Our bill is pretty simple. It just allows judges to protect people.”
SB156 would avoid the burden Reed faced of “fees-on-fees,” which leaves dependent adults paying for both sides of legal disputes over excessive fees, whether they win or lose their arguments. The bill would tackle that problem by creating a “loser pays” system. If an elderly or disabled adult objects to the fees of a court-appointed conservator and wins the case, then the conservator could be required by a judge to pay his or her own legal fees. Otherwise, those fees would be drawn from the person’s estate.
In Reed’s case, he objected when his court-appointed trustee charged $108,771 for four-and-a-half months’ work in 2010, but that spiraled into legal bills more than double the original amount. Reed’s case — highlighted in this newspaper’s investigation “Loss of Trust” — was resolved in the appeals court, but only after a lengthy court fight and the help of a dedicated pro bono legal team.
SB156 has so far attracted only one formal objection — from the trade group representing fiduciaries, who serve as probate court-appointees handling the money and daily care of dependent adults. Jerry Desmond, the lobbyist for the Professional Fiduciary Association of California, was the sole opponent of Beall’s bill testifying at Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. While Desmond said his group shares Beall’s intent to best serve vulnerable adults, he believes the bill would scare fiduciaries away from seeking court assignments.
“We could end up in a situation where we don’t have enough professional conservators to take the cases,” Desmond told senators.