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After Abuses, Probate Reform Looms

Judicial Council to consider recommendations at public hearing Oct. 28

Jayme Mason, said her grandmother, Doris Elaine Mason, no longer has $2 million in assets after relying on the Arizona probate court.

Jayme Mason, left, said her grandmother, Doris Elaine Mason, no longer has $2 million in assets after relying on the Arizona probate court. — Photo by Andy DeLisle/Wonderful Machine

En español | Sweeping proposals designed to provide greater protection and accountability for the finances of incapacitated people and estates in probate are making their way through Arizona's court system.

See also: What Happens to Probate Property if You Die Without a Will?

The proposals are a result of widespread media reports of lawyers and fiduciaries mismanaging and depleting the life savings of men and women, mostly frail elderly, while charging high fees. The Probate and Mental Health Department of the Superior Court was designed to protect some of the state's most vulnerable people.

Advocates of reform said probate judges lacked the background and experience necessary to render fair rulings. And they said disputes between relatives often lasted months, if not years, in the system.

Jayme Mason, of Phoenix, was one of those engaged in a protracted probate battle. For four years, she disputed the way in which her grandmother's care and estate were being handled. During that time, Mason claims most of her now 93-year-old grandmother's property and possessions — once worth $2 million — were spent or devalued. Even her valuable coin collections disappeared.

Just how many of these heart-wrenching, complex cases of abuse have occurred in Arizona is not known. There are no statistics or estimates.

"There were just a few of those cases, but they were high-profile and … heartbreaking," said Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch.

As a result, Berch appointed a 19-member commission of jurists and laypeople last year to recommend ways of improving judicial oversight and processing in probate courts. The committee looked at probate systems in at least five other states — Texas, Florida, Minnesota, California and Idaho. Some of the proposed reforms are Arizona's alone.

Court officials now are making their way through the commission's proposed reforms in its 432-page report.

The Arizona Judicial Council is scheduled to consider the proposals at an Oct. 28 meeting that is open to the public. Those items approved by the council would be sent to the five-justice state Supreme Court in December for its adoption.

The proposals are designed to inject more accountability into the handling of probate cases. Ensuring the transparency of fees is at the heart of the reform recommendations.

Next: Recommendations called 'trailblazing.' >>

The proposals include:

  • Requiring "good faith" cost estimates for services and expenses, budgets and monthly statements to avoid any sticker shock at the end of a year.
  • Setting fee guidelines for probate lawyers and fiduciaries.
  • Creating a first-in-the-nation sustainability review by the courts to determine whether a person's assets would be sufficient to cover expenses during his or her normal lifespan. Future decisions on expenditures would be made accordingly.
  • Instituting a follow-up system by the courts to ensure that individuals are being treated properly.
  • Implementing training programs for those involved in probate cases. The cost of the proposals has not been determined

Sylvia Stevens, a retired private fiduciary and member of the AARP Arizona steering committee who served on the commission, said the panel's recommendations are a "commonsense approach" to attacking deficiencies throughout the current system.

"We think it's a giant step forward with the transparency, education and post-appointment follow-up being recommended," said Stevens, 83. "Those are trailblazing things."

Mason said the panel's work represents some progress, but she wants even more accountability built into the system.

"These things won't help my grandmother; it's too late for her," Mason said. "I want to make sure I'm protected and other people are. That's what's really important."

Also of interest: Two states where probate gets pricey: California and Florida. >>

David Schwartz is a freelance writer living in Gilbert, Ariz.

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