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Conservatorships Often Lead to Intra-Family Litigation

A conservatorship is designed to protect the health and finances of a person who is no longer capable of acting for themselves. A conservator is someone appointed by a California probate court to oversee the disabled person’s estate or person. Once appointed, the conservator is accountable to the court, and a judge may issue additional orders to ensure the conservatorship is handled properly.

Judge Erred in Ordering Premature Division of Couple’s Community Property

Judges are not always right. In a recent case from Santa Ana, a California appeals court overruled a probate court’s order against the spouse of a man under a conservatorship. The probate judge said the spouse disobeyed an order related to the conservatorship.

The couple in this case have been married since 1983. During their marriage, the couple acquired a significant amount of community property in California. In 2007, the husband was diagnosed with a form of dementia. The dementia, in turn, led the husband to abuse alcohol and becoming estranged from his family. The husband attempted to file a divorce action, but the court dismissed it citing his lack of mental capacity.

The husband’s sister subsequently filed a petition to be named the temporary conservator of her brother’s estate and person. This led to extended litigation between the sister and the wife. Eventually, in 2012, the parties agreed to the appointment of professional conservators. The wife further agreed to pay all of the husband’s outstanding medical bills. This was not insignificant: The Court of Appeals noted that the wife “devoted about 72 percent of the couple’s $200,000 marital estate income to making the $12,000 a month payments to a home specializing in Alzheimer’s care for” her estranged husband.

The professional conservators wanted the wife to pay a number of additional claims, mostly related to their own fees. When she declined to do so, the conservators asked the judge to divide the couple’s community assets in order to effect payment. The wife argued she was not required to make such payments as they did not relate to her husband’s “care and maintenance.” The judge disagreed and issued an order to divide the couple’s community property.

The wife appealed. In an unpublished April 15 decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the probate judge’s decision. The appeals court said the probate court’s job was to decide whether the wife had complied with its orders related to the husband’s support and maintenance—and “not whether she had refused to pay attorney and conservatorship claims in a lump sum to the conservator.” Especially in the context of a contested conservatorship petition, like this one, the appeals court said that “equating professional fees with support has the effect of unfairly penalizing the ability of the competent spouse to litigate his or her side of the story.”

Need Advice About a Conservatorship?

If you or a family member have been diagnosed with a potentially disabling physical or mental condition, it is important to consider the estate planning implications. A qualified San Diego estate planning lawyer can advise you on the need for a power of attorney, guardianship, or conservatorship depending on your situation. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady if you need to speak with an estate planning attorney today.

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