Conservatorship Law Update: In Forma Pauperis Status Alone Requires Court To Determine Indigent Status For Attorney Fees.

In the recent case of In Re: Conservatorship of Catherine Chapman, A13-2290 (Minn. App. Oct. 14, 2014) (unpublished), the Minnesota Court of Appeals reaffirmed the broad discretion of district courts to determine the necessity and amount of attorney fees in contested conservatorships, but remanded on issue of the protected person’s eligibility for indigent-status payment by the county of those fees based on her in forma pauperis status alone.  In 2011, Catherine Chapman (the protected person) was placed under an emergency conservatorship on her son’s petition.  Six months later Senior Options, Inc.  replaced the emergency conservator.  The conservatorship ended in 2013 when the district court granted Chapman’s petition for restoration of capacity.

At a contested hearing on the conservator’s final accounting, Chapman and her daughter contested the reasonableness of the $36,000 attorney fees incurred by Senior Options.  The district court awarded the attorney fees in full.  Chapman and her daughter appealed, contending the district court erred by finding Senior Options reasonably incurred $36,000 in attorney fees and failed to determine Hennepin County should pay her attorney fees due to her indigent status.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the district court did not abuse discretion in awarding $36,000 in attorney fees to the conservatorship.  The court found the rate and amount of fees were reasonable because of Chapman’s continual opposition to the guardianship proceedings and authority of Senior Options.  The Court remanded, however, on the issue of whether Chapman was indigent and, as such, her fees were chargeable to Hennepin County.  The court reasoned her in forma pauperis status alone required the district court to analyze the fee issue.

This case is important for its holding that in forma pauperis status is per se sufficient to require a district court determination as to indigent-status payment of attorney fees.  It is also is important for its affirmance of the vast discretion given district courts in determining fees disputes.

We will continue to monitor this and other decisions impacting conservatorships.  If you have any questions about this, or any other matter, please contact Bob Kuderer or Tom Brock.