Standing to Contest a Conservatorship

May 26, 2020 § Leave a comment

May a person being sued by a conservatorship challenge the legality of the conservatorship and have it set aside?

That was an issue that arose in the course of litigation between the conservators of Mary Cook and John Ward, her erstwhile business partner. The conservators sued Ward to recover money he got from Cook, charging him with undue influence and claiming she was incompetent. During the trial, Ward moved the court to “set aside” the conservatorship because the record showed that Cook was not given 5-days’ notice of the conservatorship hearing as required by § 93-13-253 (now superseded by the GAP Act). The chancellor denied the motion, and Ward appealed.

In Ward v. Estate of Cook, et al., the COA affirmed. Judge Jack Wilson wrote for the unanimous court:

¶24. As noted above, the trial in this case was held on October 17, 2018, and November 9, 2018. On November 8, 2018, Ward filed a mid-trial motion to set aside the conservatorship, alleging that Cook did not receive five days’ notice of the hearing on the conservatorship petition as required by Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-13-253 (Rev. 2013). The chancellor denied the motion and ruled that Ward was a “stranger” to Cook’s conservatorship and lacked standing to challenge it. On appeal, Ward argues that the chancellor erred and that the conservatorship was void and should be set aside due to insufficient notice and for additional reasons.

¶25. A person has both standing and a right to petition for the removal of a conservator if that person “has a legitimate interest present or prospective in [the ward’s] estate, or . . . some personal responsibility as regards the estate or the care or welfare of the ward.” In re Conservatorship of Davis, 954 So. 2d 521, 524 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Conservatorship of Harris v. King, 480 So. 2d 1131, 1132 (Miss. 1985)). In addition, “the chancellor, as superior guardian, might take notice of petitions by strangers in such cases as a matter of information to him openly tendered,” but such a stranger has “no privilege of appeal” if the chancellor refuses to consider his petition. Id. (emphasis added) (quoting Harris, 480 So. 2d at 1132). In other words, it is “clear . . . under Mississippi law that the receipt of such petitions [from ‘strangers’] is within the chancellor’s discretion.” Id. (quoting Harris, 480 So. 2d at 1132).

¶26. In the chancery court, Ward argued that he had standing to challenge the conservatorship simply because he was being sued by the conservators. On appeal, he similarly argues that his claim to the Overstreet Drive property constitutes an “interest” in Cook’s estate. However, the chancellor correctly rejected Ward’s argument. The estate’s claim that Ward had wrongfully taken money and property from Cook did not give Ward a legitimate interest in Cook’s estate. Therefore, Ward was a mere “stranger” to the estate. Furthermore, the chancellor did not abuse her discretion by denying Ward’s eleventh-hour challenge to the conservatorship. This issue is without merit.

That’s kind of interesting that the court might take notice of a stranger’s petition as a matter of information, but the stranger has no privilege of appeal if the trial court refuses to act on it.

Best Practices in Guardianships and Conservatorships

December 11, 2019 § 2 Comments

The UCCRs impose a heavy duty on attorneys to advise and supervise the client-fiduciary in fiduciary matters, including guardianships and conservatorships. The burden can be so onerous that some cases refer to it as the “yoke of probate.” You can not blithely turn your fiduciary loose to figure it out for himself or herself. You have a duty to the court, the ward, creditors, and, in estates, the beneficiaries or heirs.

Make sure your fiduciary knows what are the do’s and don’ts. Put together an instruction sheet and have your client sign a copy to keep in your file for your protection.

There is a reason that UCCR 6.01 requires every fiduciary to have an attorney (unless excused). It’s because the attorney is the arm of the court who is responsible to supervise the fiduciary and make sure everything is being done properly. As you have heard many times before, if you find that too burdensome, simply refuse to handle fiduciary matters.

Some GAP Act considerations:

• § 93-20-125, MCA, deals with coverage of the GAP Act. All cases commenced on or after January 1, 2010, proceed under the GAP Act. “A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.” MRCP 3(a). So when you file your complaint to open the guardianship or conservatorship will determine coverage. Cases that were commenced before January 1, 2020, are covered by the GAP act unless you move the court for a finding the “application of a particular provision of this chapter would substantially interfere with the effective conduct of the proceedings or prejudice the rights of the parties …” and the court finds that the particular provision does not apply.
• MRCP 18(a) specifically states that “A party asserting a claim to relief as an original claim, counter-claim, cross-claim, or third-party claim, may join, either as independent or as alternate claims, as many claims as he has against an opposing party.” Some people have raised the question whether the GAP Act allows a combined guardianship/conservatorship action. The GAP Act is silent on the point, yes. But MRCP speaks loudly that you can. And the GAP Act expressly provides at Section 107 that procedures are governed by the MRCP.
• Some people have also questioned whether, if combined actions are allowed under the MRCP, are two filing fees required? Why would they be? They are not now for combined guardianships of the person and estate, which are merely the old (now existing) terms for what under the GAP Act will be guardianship and conservatorship.

• There are some hiccups with MEC adapting to the new nomenclature imposed by the GAP Act. That is being fixed even as this is being written. Our fingers are crossed that the issues will be fixed before January 1, 2020.
• Also to be addressed are technical corrections to the Act to address some concerns that have been raised. This is normal and to be expected. Every statute with the extent of the GAP Act undergoes a similar process.

Some general suggestions …

• Always accompany the fiduciary to the bank or other financial institution to open the conservatorship account. That way you can make sure that the funds are properly deposited into a restricted account, and that the fiduciary does what she is supposed to do.
• Always ask that a duplicate bank statement be sent to you for the conservatorship account. If the bank balks, direct that the bank statement be sent to you and not the fiduciary. Review each bank statement promptly when you receive it to make sure that no unauthorized disbursements are being made. Also, when the next accounting comes due — Voila! — you have a complete set of bank statements.
• Have your secretary or paralegal call the fiduciary every couple of months to inquire how things are going, to remind of upcoming deadlines, and to ensure that the address and telephone info in your file is accurate. This is not only great client relations, it’s one of the best means possible to discover and address problems in their early stages.
• Accompany your fiduciary to inventory that safe deposit box, and, if possible, bring a witness. It seems that there is often someone lurking in the wings ready to allege that there were all sorts of valuable items in there that the fiduciary is not accounting for.
• Do an inventory even when one is not required. Inventory establishes the baseline for accounting. It also can help neutralize the claims of many disgruntled parties claiming an interest. The GAP Act inventory form is exactly what you need to go by.
• GAP Act forms are not only helpful; they also were carefully crafted to include every item you are required to plead or report. Use them. Slavishly using the exact forms is not (yet) required; however, if you prefer to make your own forms, yours should substantially conform to those published.
• As of today, we have no body of law interpreting the GAP Act, but that will surely change over time. Until it does, we can look to court decisions under our former law. MCA §93-13-38 provided that, “All the provisions of the law on the subject of executors and administrators , relating to settlement or disposition of property limitations, notice to creditors … “ , etc. also applied to guardianships and conservatorships. Just in case that principle is found to apply to GAP Act cases, you need to keep in mind that, in an estate, when real property is sold pursuant to a decree of the court, § 91-7-205, MCA, requires that the executor or administrator shall execute a bond equal to the proceeds of the sale of the land. This code section does not apply to a sale by the heirs or devisees in whom title has vested. There is an exception to the requirement of bond. If the time within which all claims of creditors against the estate has expired, the court may waive all or any part of the bond when all the beneficiaries to the proceeds of the sale petition the court to authorize the sale and waive the necessity of a bond. § 91-7-205, MCA. If an executor or administrator fails to give the bond required, the court may direct a master to make the sale, and, after confirmation, convey the land. Section 91-7-207, MCA. An early case held that failure to give the bond voids the sale. Buckner v. Wood, 45 Miss. 57 (1871).
• Your fiduciary is obligated to increase the ward’s estate, if possible. The courts apply the prudent investor standard, which can be second-guessed. There are a few ultra-safe investments that the fiduciary may make without prior approval, per MCA § 91-13-3, including time CD’s, CDAR’s, savings accounts, and most FDIC- and FSLIC-insured accounts (Note: to my knowledge, credit union accounts do not qualify). Only problem is that in this era, those accounts produce interest rates closer to zero than anything that would actually increase the ward’s estate. So the prudent investor has to look to more speculative investments, which are allowed under MCA 91-13-3 and -5, but require a bond. See In re Guardianship of Roshto, 134 So. 3d 739 (Miss. 2014). Under the GAP Act, you will need to submit your investment plan to the court for approval, with adequate supporting documentation so that anyone looking at it later will be able to see that the court had a valid basis for its order.
• All expenses and receipts must be accounted for annually or more frequently if ordered by the court. UCCR 6.03 – 6.06 detail the voucher requirement. There’s a right way and a wrong way to file an accounting; do it the right way. Forms are published to help you. Use them.
• § 93-13-69, MCA formerly required that accounts of several wards must have been kept separately. We still think that the best practice under the GAP Act will be to open a separate guardianship or conservatorship, or guardianship/conservatorship for each of several wards, even if they are guardianships only, because if assets come into the child’s estate, they must be accounted for separately. The former statute did authorize the judgments dealing with them to be combined “wherever practicable.”

Minor’s settlements …

• Yes, there is nothing in the GAP Act that does away with the requirement of minor’s settlements. § 93-20-431 does allow transfers not exceeding $25,000 to a minor in a given year without court approval, which is commensurate with the law pre-January 1, 2020. So when, exactly, is court approval required? In every transaction in which the minor is to receive a liquidated sum over $25,000, and in every case involving an unliquidated sum. A liquidated sum would include, for example, life insurance proceeds or a lump-sum survivor’s benefit for a set amount by contract. If the settlement is for an unliquidated sum, such as for personal injury settlement, the settlement must be found by a chancellor to be in the best interest of the ward; i.e., in a minor’s settlement proceeding. The statute does not specify the liquidated/unliquidated dichotomy spelled out above, but I believe that approach is the best practice and most protective of all parties.• You should always obtain a letter from the Mississippi Division of Medicaid either stating the amount of its lien against the proceeds, or stating that it asserts no lien. Never accept your client’s word that Medicaid has no lien. Failure to protect Medicaid’s lien can subject both you and your client to an action by Medicaid to recover double damages, and your client can lose Medicaid eligibility as well.
• Remember that, in minor’s settlements, only statutory liens are required to be withheld from the minor’s proceeds. Memorial Hospital at Gulfport v. Proulx, 121 So. 3d 222, 224 (Miss. 2013). It is the duty of the parents, not a child, to provide for the child’s medical care; when you ask the court to order that unpaid medical expenses be paid out of the child’s proceeds, you are essentially asking the court to order the child to pay his or her own medical bills. If you do want the child to have to pay for his own medical care, you will have to put on proof that requiring the parents to pay would put an undue financial burden on the family that will impact other children and the parents, and that if the parents are unable to pay and it goes into collection, the ward’s future ability to obtain medical care will be adversely affected. Otherwise, the chancellor will have to assign responsibility for expenses not included in the settlement on the parents.
• Remember, too, that the chancellor is responsible to make sure that the settlement is reasonable. It makes no difference that everyone with responsibility agrees that the settlement is reasonable. It is the chancellor’s duty to make the decision that it is in the child’s best interest.

• My best prognostication is that, although the law will have changed, chancellors will continue to have the same expectations of diligence, responsibility, candor, and honesty in handling of fiduciary matters that they have had under existing law.

Some GAP Act Considerations Early On

December 10, 2019 § Leave a comment

Concerns are being voiced about some provisions of the GAP Act, which will go into effect in a few mere weeks. The Guardianship Commission is going to the legislature to seek some technical amendments to the GAP Act that will address most of those concerns, but until that gets accomplished, here are some ideas to help deal with the rollout:

  • § 93-20-125, MCA, deals with coverage of the GAP Act. All cases commenced on or after January 1, 2020, proceed under the GAP Act. So when is a case commenced? MRCP 3(a) specifies that “A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.” So the date when you file your complaint to open the guardianship or conservatorship will determine coverage. For example, if you filed a petition on November 15, 2019, but don’t obtain a judgment until January 15, 2020, it may or may not be covered by the GAP Act, as explained below. Likewise, if your fiduciary was appointed in 2016, your case may or not be covered by the GAP Act, as explained below. But, if you file your petition on or after January 1, 2020, your case is under the GAP Act, period.
  • For those pre-GAP Act cases, there is a possibility that you could continue under the existing law. That’s possible because Section 125 provides that cases commenced before January 1, 2020, are covered by the GAP Act unless you move the court for a finding that the “application of a particular provision of this chapter would substantially interfere with the effective conduct of the proceedings or prejudice the rights of the parties …” and the court finds that the particular provision does not apply. So, if you don’t want your pre-existing guardianship or conservatorship to be subject to the GAP Act, file a motion and ask the judge to except it.
  • Some have questioned whether that motion in the previous paragraph needs to be filed before 1-1-2020. My opinion is that it doesn’t. I think it must be filed before the next event, such as accounting or motion for authority and direction, whenever that comes before the court.
  • Many have pointed out the ambiguity in the GAP Act over the “notice” that must be given to various individuals in guardianships and conservatorships. I understand that ambiguity will be addressed in the technical amendments, but that will take until the end of the upcoming session of the legislature. How do we deal with it in the meantime? Here’s how I intend to. Notice to persons who are entitled to due process under the Fifth Amendment will be by service of process; those people are the ones whose liberty is being affected (adult and minor proposed wards in guardianships, and parents in minor guardianships), and whose property rights are being affected (proposed wards in conservatorships, and parents of proposed minor wards in conservatorships). In addition, the statute specifically requires that, in some actions, notice to one additional relative in Mississippi is required; that person should get process. All of these entitled to process are entitled to Rule 81 process. Everyone else gets simple notice, which requires only a mailing and certificate of service. “Notice” short of process is MRCP 5 notice, in my opinion. Your chancellor’s mileage may vary. Communicate with your chancellor and discover how she’s going to address these matters. It can vary from district to district, and even from chancellor to chancellor within a district.
  • To implement the previous paragraph, looking at the law, I believe R81 process is required on the following: § 204, the minor, each parent, or, if none to be found, the adult nearest in kin who can be found; § 303, the proposed ward, any already-appointed conservator, and one relative selected in descending order from sub-sections (i) and (ii); § 403, the proposed ward, and one relative selected in descending order from sub-sections (i) and (ii), the VA if it has an interest; and any other person as directed by the court. Anyone else named in the Act as one to receive notice should be noticed per R5, unless the Act specifies summons.
  • The GAP Act specifies that the MRCP controls procedures, so tailor your procedures to make them fit the MRCP. It’s not rocket science. You had to do the same thing with the old law, didn’t you? After all, most of the old law pre-existed the MRCP, and we had to engineer ways to tailor it to the new procedures, which we did successfully. We will do the same with this new law.
  • MRCP 18(a) specifically states that “A party asserting a claim to relief as an original claim, counter-claim, cross-claim, or third-party claim, may join, either as independent or as alternate claims, as many claims as he has against an opposing party.” Some people have raised the question whether the GAP Act allows a combined guardianship/conservatorship action. The GAP Act is silent on the point, yes. But MRCP speaks loudly that you can. And the GAP Act expressly provides at Section 107 that procedures are governed by the MRCP.
  • Some people have also questioned whether, if combined actions are allowed under the MRCP, are two filing fees required? Why would they be? They are not now for combined guardianships of the person and estate, which are merely the old (now existing) terms for what under the GAP Act will be guardianship and conservatorship.
  • There is nothing in the GAP Act that does away with the requirement of minor’s settlements. § 93-20-431 does allow transfers not exceeding $25,000 to a minor in a given year without court approval, but that is simply our current law recodified in the GAP Act. So when, exactly, is court approval required? I suggest that, court approval must be obtained in every transaction in which the minor is to receive a liquidated sum over $25,000, and in every case involving an unliquidated sum. A liquidated sum would include, for example, life insurance proceeds or a lump-sum survivor’s benefit for a set amount by contract. If the settlement is for an unliquidated sum, such as for personal injury settlement, the settlement must be found by a chancellor to be in the best interest of the ward; i.e., in a minor’s settlement proceeding. The statute does not specify the liquidated/unliquidated dichotomy spelled out above, but I believe that approach is the best practice and most protective of all parties.
  • There are some hiccups with MEC adapting to the new nomenclature imposed by the GAP Act. That is being fixed even as this is being written. Our fingers are crossed that the issues will be fixed before January 1, 2020.
  • Also to be addressed are other technical corrections to the Act to address some concerns that have been raised. This is normal and to be expected. Every statute with the extent of the GAP Act undergoes a similar process.
  • Finally, there’s no reason to panic. The law is ever-changing, and sometimes the changes are big, like when the MRCP and MRE were adopted. The lawyers who adapted and learned to live with the changes survived and thrived, and the dinosaurs became extinct. It will be the same with the GAP Act.

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