How Not to Prove Attorney’s Fees

November 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Allene Crowell died in 2006. Her two surviving daughters, Caron Crowell and Jackie Trotter, were named co-executrixes.

Jackie filed a complaint charging that Caron had unduly influenced Allene to gift her an unfair share of Allene’s estate, and with converting the mother’s assets.

The chancellor did find undue influence and granted the estate a judgment against Caron. She filed a R59 motion, based on which the court added $100,000 to the judgment, on its own motion, finding that Caron had spent more than $100,000 of estate assets “on more than 40 lawyers” looking for legal opinions to support her position. The court ruled her actions to be a dissipation of estate assets.

Caron appealed, and the MSSC affirmed the chancellor’s ruling on the undue influence and judgment, but reversed on the $100,000 addition for attorney’s fees.

Here’s what Justice Randolph said for the unanimous court in the case of Estate of Crowell: Crowell v. Trotter, handed down November 6, 2014:

¶20. Caron argues that the trial court’s finding that she spent $100,000 of the estate’s money on attorney fees is contrary to the facts in evidence. Caron further argues that ordering her to pay $100,000 increases the value of the estate by $100,000 over the value established by Jackson.

¶21. We find that the trial court erred in sua sponte, post-judgment, increasing the judgment by $100,000 for Caron’s estimated expenditures on attorney fees. The record is inconclusive about both the amount of money spent on attorney fees, and from whose money the funds to pay the legal fees came. The trial court noted that Caron testified that the money came from her own funds, which was the only evidence presented.

¶22. At trial, Caron testified that she had seen at least forty-two lawyers. When asked how much she had spent on legal fees, Caron testified “It’s a lot.” When asked if she had paid for legal fees out of her own money, Caron responded:

A. Well, it depends – as long as Mother was alive, I think I used her funds. I didn’t spend that much really. You know, I was trying to get good legal advice for her and get her totally protected. A lot of the attorneys didn’t charge. But I don’t know how much. I don’t know how much it was. I don’t think it was all that much. Then since her, I have paid my own attorneys fees, and it’s been a lot. I – you know, there’s – it’s been a lot.

Q. Well, give me an estimate.

A. $100,000, I think.

Q. In attorney fees?

A. Yes, that’s a guesstimate, estimate.

¶23. The record does not disclose substantial evidence to support a $100,000 increase in judgment. Caron “guesstimated” the attorney fees to be around $100,000. No testimony of bank statements, canceled checks, bills from attorneys, or any other form of evidence was offered to support or contest Caron’s “guesstimate.”

¶24. If Caron actually spent $100,000 on legal fees, the only testimony before the court was that she paid most of the fees out of her own pocket. The $100,000 “guesstimate” followed her statement that she has paid “a lot” of her “own” legal fees. After Caron testified that she had spent a lot of her own money, counsel asked Caron for an estimate. “$100,000.00, I think” was responsive to a question asking how much of her own money she had spent, which is not substantial evidence to support the trial court’s finding.

*   *   *

¶26. The record lacks substantial evidence supporting that Caron actually spent $100,000 of the estate’s money. Caron’s ambiguous and unsupported $100,000 “guesstimate” is not substantial evidence. We find such a conclusion is in error.

No surprise here. The reason I am pointing this out is that Caron’s testimony is not too far off what I hear sometimes from witnesses on the issue of attorney’s fees. Vague, indefinite, ballpark figures, unsubstantiated with proof of payment and other supporting evidence, is simply not adequate to prove a claim for attorney’s fees that will stand up on appeal.

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