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Elder Law

Family of Deceased Elderly Couple Dispute Guardian Lawyers over Tens of Thousands in Bills

Posted Dec 4, 2012 6:00 PM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Corrected: The battle between a court-appointed law firm and the family of an elderly couple that was in its care over legal fees is raising questions of the treatment of aging Americans by paid guardians and the lack of state processes to protect them.

A judge appointed Virginia-based law firm Needham, Mitnick & Pollack third-party guardians of decorated WWII veteran Samuel Drakulich and his wife Jeanne, and a $700,000 nest egg, after a dispute among the incapacitated couple’s children about their future care, the Washington Post reported.

However, charges of tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses have come under fire by some members of the Drakulich family and have led to an ongoing court battle over the firm’s actions. The suit has also raised concern among elder-care advocates and legislators at a time when a surge of Baby Boomer retirees is expected to make these types of arrangements more common, the Post reported.

Needham, Mitnick & Pollack agreed to the guardian and conservator appointment of the couple in 2004 under a court order that dictated the firm would be paid at its "usual hourly rate for professional services," a necessary condition for the firm to have been able to financially afford to accept the appointment, Susan Pollack, a founding member of the firm, told the ABA Journal.

Samuel Drakulich died later that year. NMP continued to manage Jeanne Drakulich's affairs and filed a yearly accounting of the firm's expenses with the Fairfax County Commissioner of Accounts, Pollack said.

In 2007, Diane Drakulich-Clarke, a daughter of the couple, wrote a letter to Fairfax’s fiduciary watchdog, John Rust, complaining about the fees, according to the Post. In 2011, after Jeanne's death, Rust determined from an investigation into the firm's billings that NMP over-billed 7 court-appointed wards $229,000, and should return $46,000 of that amount to the Drakuliches, according to a report filed with the court. Some of the questionable charges included $6,300 to prepare $1,800 worth of household items for auction and up to $125 an hour for renewing dog licenses and preparing instructions on emptying a dryer’s lint trap, according to the Post. Pollack said those figures were miscalculated by Rust and the Washington Post.

In March 2012, Judge Leslie M. Alden held that the "amount of time spent by NMP in completing the tasks was reasonable and that the tasks were necessary, appropriate and of value to the wards." Alden also held that the fees charged by the firm for non-legal services were not reasonable and remanded the case back to the commissioner of accounts to determine the proper hourly rate for the non-legal tasks. NMP is appealing the ruling to Virginia’s Supreme Court.

Virginia does not require special training or certification for lawyer or non-lawyer professional appointed guardians, however the case expected to be closely watched by lawyers and lawmakers, the Post reported.

“We need to look at ways to strengthen the oversight system for guardians,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, told the Post. “While most court-appointed guardians are undoubtedly professional, caring and law-abiding, we have seen mounting evidence that some guardians use their position of power for their own gain.”

Updated at 4 pm. to include comments from Needham, Mitnick & Pollack Member Susan Pollack, additional details regarding the ongoing legal battle and to clarify that Samuel and Jeanne Drakulich died during the guardianship's tenure.

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