Beall's Proposal to Protect Conserved Estates Passes Senate Judiciary Committee

April 23, 2013

SACRAMENTO – Legislation by Senator Jim Beall to provide judges with greater discretion to protect estates of conserved seniors and people with disabilities from unjustified or exorbitant bills and fees won bipartisan approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

“Senate Bill 156 will level the playing field in probate court when fee disputes are litigated,’’ said Beall, D-San Jose. “It will protect conserved adults from being charged exorbitant fees by their conservator.

“I think parents who have children with developmental disabilities would like to have this bill adopted and I believe it will help them sleep better at night. This law will protect their loved ones when they leave.’’

The bill aims to correct a flaw in the legal system that penalizes conserved adults who challenge the billed costs from estate managers. Under existing law, conserved adults who go to court to contest questionable costs must pay their conservator’s legal fees – also known as “fees on fees’’ -- even if a judge ultimately finds the conservator had filed unjustified bills.

Consequently, many conserved adults choose to accept overcharges because it will cost more to challenge them in court, win or lose. The result: estates -- established by parents to keep their vulnerable sons and daughters financially secure when they could no longer be there to care for them – are being emptied.

SB 156 balances the scales of justice by creating a “loser pays’’ process in which both sides risk paying their opponent’s legal fees if they lose. The proposal, if adopted, will act as a deterrent to the padding of costs, thereby reducing the number of contested fee dispute cases in probate court.

The bill also codifies a judge’s authority to decide if any fees or none at all should be paid by the loser to the prevailing party. Existing law has been open to different interpretations of whether a judge has the power to curb fees on fees.

San Jose attorney Matt Crosby, who has practiced probate and trust litigation for 35 years and testified before the committee, described the bill’s solution as “elegant, reasonable, and necessary,’’ and “solves the problem of having judges’ hands tied’’ when adjudicating fee challenges.