Saturday, July 21, 2012

Seven Questions I Ask Clients When Mediating Estate And Family Property Conflicts

I have noticed an increase in the number of estates, trusts, and probate-related disputes over the last few years. Part of the increase may be our aging baby boomer population and part of it may be due to the economic downturn. In some of our cases, we use mediation to resolve these disputes -- entire cases or isolated issues. 

For example, in cases in which a residence is the sole or primary asset, mediation with regard to a possible expedited sale of the house with the proceeds to be put in escrow pending resolution of the lawsuit can benefit the parties since empty houses deteriorate rapidly and are difficult to insure. Such a sale can also serve as a reality check for the parties who may be improperly estimating the fair market value of the house. 

Why is mediation used even when each side is sure that he or she is absolutely right or the opposing party seems impossible? Here are 5 reasons: First, it can help save litigation expenses and prevent the estate from being dissipated by legal fees. Due to court cutbacks, it takes longer to obtain hearings and cases can last for years. Second, it maintains our clients' confidentiality and keeps fights out of the public eye. In litigation, court filings are public where mediation can allow the records to be confidential. Third, it can preserve family relationships or prevent family relationships from deteriorating further.Mediation can address underlying family conflicts and take into account emotions and family dynamics in considering legal obligations and rights. 

Fourth, it allows us to obtain certainty and ensure tax savings which may not happen in litigation when a judge is deciding the case. Fifth, it allows us to use creative solutions that may not be typical legal remedies that a court can apply. In mediation we can air and acknowledge complicated emotional issues that were preventing early settlement and we can develop flexible solutions to accommodate different interests. 

Here are some questions I ask clients when we are considering mediation. This is based on cases where we have agreed to mediate conflicts in order to preserve family wealth and promote family relationships. 

  • Is the conflict ripe for mediation and are the parties motivated? Mediation should occur when planning and decision making cannot continue because of unresolved conflict and the parties understand that opportunities are being lost or extra expenses and legal fees are being incurred. Mediation usually happens after we have hit a wall in the settlement process where having an experienced third party mediator can make a difference. Mediation can occur before, during, or after court proceedings.
  • What are the goals for mediation? I help clients identify the goals in specific terms. Do you want the best possible monetary outcome, family peace, specific property, preservation of assets or other goals? 
  • Who should participate in the mediation?  Probate cases usually involve a high degree of emotionality and numerous parties. There may be multiple decision makers (spouses, children, advisors, and significant others). If someone can veto the agreement or is necessary for it to work, consider whether that person should be at the mediation.
  • Are you and the lawyers prepared?  Thorough preparation is often the key to success. It is important to have researched the underlying facts and the law with respect to the outstanding issues before going to mediation. Sometimes the key to successful resolution may lie in creative use of the tax laws. I also spend time identifying the strengths and weaknesses of both sides' positions. I usually prepare a confidential Settlement Brief providing the mediator with necessary information and background information. I will also highlight my clients' strengths and give the mediator the other sides' weaknesses. I summarize the history of prior settlement attempts and offers. I often provide the mediator with copies of relevant cases and/or statutes. Sometimes I will present expert or financial reports to help the mediator understand the issues. 
  • Who should be the mediator? Mediators have different styles and approaches. Will the parties respect a former probate judge? Do the personalities and situation require an authoritative mediator to evaluates alternatives and suggests outcomes? Or would the parties respond better to a more facilitative mediator who helps the parties work out their own agreement?
  • Do we have a negotiation plan? In order to be assured of getting what my client wants most, I help prioritize my client's interests, prepare a general strategy and consider which concessions might help achieve the identified goals. It sometimes takes more than 1 session to reach agreements and my client needs to be prepared to be patient and keep emotions in check and not simply issue ultimatums. Some mediations are marathons and not sprints. 
  • Can we bring our proposed settlement agreement to the mediation? If I have cases where clients know what specific wording or stipulations are needed, I will bring a draft agreement, release or settlement on a memory device or laptop to the mediation to be revised as needed. Careful drafting is required for a mediated agreement to be enforceable and it is best to obtain the signatures the day of the mediation to avoid future disputes or someone changing their mind. 
Posted by Henry (Hank) J. Moravec, III, a partner at Moravec, Varga and Mooney, A Partnership. For a free 30 minute consultation (telephonic or in person), you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221. The firm website is www.moravecslaw.com

The firm has two offices and consultations and meetings can be held at either office. There is ample free parking adjacent to the firm's offices.

The San Gabriel Valley office is located at 2233 Huntington Drive, Suite 17, San Marino, California 91108.
The San Fernando Valley office is located at 4605 Lankershim Boulevard, Suite 718, North Hollywood, California 91602-1878.

Monday, July 16, 2012

FAQ: What Is A Conservatorship And When Is It Necessary?

What are conservatorships? In California and other states, all adults are considered capable of handling their own affairs unless a Judge determines otherwise. In California, this legal arrangement is called a conservatorship.  Conservatorships are established for impaired adults, mot often older people. Adults who are developmentally disabled or the victims of a catastrophic illness or accident may also have a conservatorship. We work with families in filing for conservatorship, opposing meritless petitions and other litigation surrounding conservatorships. We also work on the planning stage to address these issues in advance.

Conservatorship of the Person

A conservatorship of the person is a court case in which a Judge appoints a responsible person or organization (known as a conservator) to care for another adult who cannot care for him or herself (known as a conservatee). Anyone - a parent, spouse, child, other relative, or friend of the adult - can apply for a conservatorship. The two most common type of probate conservatorships are general and limited. LPS conservatorships are used to care for adults with serious mental health illnesses and they must be started by a local government agency. 
Once you are appointed conservator, it becomes your legal responsibility to provide care for the conservatee's daily needs. Therefore, it is important to consider less demanding alternatives to conservatorship. The convservatorships must be filed in the county in which the person resides.  

When Conservatorship is Necessary

Establishing a conservatorship is a formal legal proceeding and involves several steps. Some adults who are concerned about possible future mental and physical incapacity decide to establish a power of attorney or a trust, in part so they can avoid the court action. They choose an individual or an institution to make decisions for them if they become impaired. These are private arrangements and must be made while the person has full mental capacity. 
In California, courts do not routinely monitor powers of attorney or trusts. Most people do not make these arrangements probably because it is difficult to think about becoming incapacitated mentally or physically. For those who have not made prior arrangements, or if the person handling the power of attorney or trust is incapable, or a controversy arises as to their services, a conservatorship may become necessary.

After a Conservatorship is Established

Management of Wealth and Property

When a conservatorship is established, the Judge will require that a bond be obtained equal to the combined value of the liquid assets and annual income in the person's estate. Liquid assets include bank accounts and stocks. A bond is like an insurance policy. If the conservator mishandles the money or takes it, the person in conservatorship can be reimbursed.
The Judge also schedules the case for Court monitoring of the finances and property of the person in conservatorship as well as his or her welfare. The law requires that an Inventory and Appraisal of all assets be filed within 90 days of the appointment of the conservator. The conservator must also file a General Plan for the conservatorship. If the conservatee has any real property, the conservator must record evidence of the conservatorship with The Recorder of the City and County of San Francisco.

One Year Review

One year after the appointment of the conservator and every two years thereafter, an accounting of the assets, including the income and the expenditures must be filed with the Court. The accounting is reviewed in detail by a probate examiner. An investigator personally interviews the individual in conservatorship periodically and determines if the conservator is acting properly.

Non-Family Conservators

There are times when family members are unavailable or incapable of serving as conservators. Occasionally, the person who is thought to need a conservator does not want a family member to be the conservator. In those situations, there are agencies and individuals that can serve. The Public Guardian is an agency of the City and County of San Francisco and is the conservator in the largest number of non-family cases. There are also non-profit agencies that have complied with the law and can be appointed to serve as conservators. In addition there are individuals who are available to serve. They are called private professional conservators. As of July 1, 2008, they must be licensed by the State of California and meet ongoing educational requirements. All professional conservators are expected to keep a case and provide services even if the money runs out, especially if they have been appointed to serve as conservator of the person.
All conservators and attorneys in a conservatorship case are entitled to request the Court for fees for their work. The fees are carefully reviewed and granted by the Probate Court only if they have been properly justified. Conservators and attorneys cannot take money without a formal court order.

Those Most in Need of Conservatorship

Conservatorships affect mainly older people, especially those over 85 years of age. Coincidentally, the fastest growing age group in the United States is the one over 85 years of age. In California, that age group will increase by 143 percent between 1990 and 2020. Some counties will experience even higher rates, up to 400 percent. The influence of the 85 and older age group will emerge most strongly between 2030 and 2040 as the first of the baby boomers reaches 85 years of age (http://www.aging.ca.gov).
With the right genes, healthy living, and luck, most people will escape being incapacitated. However, many Californians will have impairments and will need help with daily living. Most likely the number of conservatorships will increase over time. Fortunately, the California legislature has mandated many court safeguards for those who need conservatorships.

Posted by Henry (Hank) J. Moravec, III, a partner at Moravec, Varga and Mooney, A Partnership. For a free 30 minute consultation (telephonic or in person), you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221.
The firm website is http://www.moravecslaw.com/. The firm has two offices and consultations and meetings can be held at either office. There is ample free parking adjacent to the firm's offices.

The San Gabriel Valley office is located at 2233 Huntington Drive, Suite 17, San Marino, California 91108.

The San Fernando Valley office is located at 4605 Lankershim Boulevard, Suite 718, North Hollywood, California 91602-1878.