COA Sets the Record Straight on Priorities

This new published Court of Appeals opinion shouldn’t surprise anyone. The COA holds that where a professional guardian/conservator resigns, and the only adult child of the ward petitions to be appointed guardian and conservator, the probate court cannot appoint a new professional guardian and conservator unless it makes a finding that the child is unsuitable.  That’s because the child has priority to be appointed.  The fact that the probate judge by-passed the child and appointed a new professional fiduciary without such evidence was reversible error.

Click here to read In Re Guardianship/Conservatorship of Harold William Gerstler.

The facts are kind of fun: a devious Aunt, a lazy guardian ad litem; but in the end the COA simply reads the statutes regarding priority of appointments and applies them to the facts.

The only thing curious about this case is that it is published. But perhaps the timing of this publication tells us something.  Perhaps, just maybe, the COA is trying to clean up the confusion left from the recently published (and revised and republished) Brody case which said that the statutory priorities were “merely a guide for the probate court’s exercise of discretion.”  [Check out the post “Better Than Nothing?” for a discussion of that case.]

Significantly, the Gerstler opinion also adopts the position that the standard of proof necessary to by-pass a person with priority is as stated in the Redd case: a preponderance. [Click here to read “Seeing Redd”.]

So, when the issue of appointment of either a guardian or conservator is in play, a party with priority is entitled to appointment unless it is shown by a preponderance of evidence that they are not suitable. That means a probate court has to have a hearing and consider evidence to make this decision. I, for one, am glad that’s clear.

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Better Than Nothing?

The Michigan Supreme Court has issued an Order denying leave in In Re Conservatorship of Rhea Brody.  However, this same Order “further notes” that the Opinion of the Court of Appeals which was the subject of the request for leave was reformed after the briefs in the case were filed.

Click here to read the Supreme Court Order.

So, a published COA decision is issued. Leave to the MSC is sought.  Briefs are filed, and then the COA revises its opinion so that MSC is satisfied that there is no reason to hear the case. How about that?

I first wrote about this Brody case (there were two of them, a trust case and this conservatorship matter) in the post: Another Brody Bombshell (click on name to visit that post). As discussed at that time, the opinion was riddled with bad law.  As mentioned in another post (Storm Clouds), our firm was hired by the Probate Section of the State Bar to prepare the amicus brief in this matter, which we did.*

The Probate Section wanted only two issues raised:

  1. The finding that the priority given to a “conservator, guardian, or similar fiduciary recognized by the appropriate court of another jurisdiction” could mean an independent trustee over a trust agreement of which the ward was settlor, which trustee was appointed by the same court hearing the conservatorship matter; and
  2. The statement of the Court of Appeals that the statutory priorities for appointment of a conservator “are merely a guide for the probate court’s exercise of discretion.”

I personally also found the case to be worthy of reversal or remand on a third point, which was that the Court appointed a conservator even where a power of attorney was in place and appeared to be effectively handling the affairs of the ward.

The Order of the MSC informs us that the COA has remedied issue number 1 above by issuing a revised opinion.

The second issue is not addressed, and therefore remains problematic language in this published opinion. Presumably we can now argue that appointment of conservators are not controlled by statutory priorities, but are rather left to the discretion of the trial court.

The third issue likewise remains unresolved, and therefore this case seems to stand in opposition to other cases, such as In Re Bittner.

Click here to read the COA Brody opinion as revised.

Better than nothing, I suppose.

*[Much thanks to CT Attorney Drummond Black for his excellent work on the amicus brief.]

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The Imperfect Bandage of Undue Influence

A rant this morning. Something to think about over your Sunday morning coffee (or tea).

Our firm starts lawsuits involving vulnerable adult exploitation as much as anyone I suppose. And we almost always plead two things: incapacity and undue influence.  While in some cases the evidence may support the proposition that the person really was so cognitively impaired that they didn’t know what they were doing, most often that is not the case.  Most often we plead incapacity in order to introduce the idea that this person’s capacity was impaired to the point that it reduced the level of persuasion that would be necessary to overcome their volition = undue influence.

For those who practice in this area, they know how difficult it is to win a case on undue influence. You have to show that the victim was essentially a conduit through which the bad actor achieved their objective – that the free will of the victim was completely overwhelmed by the power of the undue influencer.  The so-called “presumption of undue influence” can be a help, but most court cases hold that the presumption, even where it is established, can be rebutted with nominal evidence.  In any event, the presumption is not the topic today.

My point (or argument) today is that we rely on undue influence because we don’t have anything better. We don’t have law that reflects the reality of the aging process today.

I have discussed the research of Dr. Lichtenberg before (see Peter’s Principles and Our Evolving Understanding of Exploitation). His work, and the experience of those of us who handle these cases, informs us that older people can be exploited because of circumstances that have nothing to do with cognitive impairment – that exploitation can occur simply because an older person loses their sense of control, dignity and/or empowerment.

These cases don’t fit well into any current legal theory. But the best we have is undue influence. Other legal theories like unconscionability, mistake, fraud  and constructive trust are available, but like undue influence, these theories are imperfect for our purposes.

The most promising development is the concept of a “vulnerable adult,” which recently entered the legal lexicon. It now appears in the criminal code and in policy for adult protective services workers.  But it has yet to find its place in the civil and probate world. Perhaps the concept of vulnerable adult exploitation will lead to new civil theories and remedies.  But we have to be mindful of what that would mean.

If we move the goalpost, as it were, from incapacity to vulnerable adult, are we going too far? There are good reasons that incapacity has served as the bright line for (1) court jurisdiction to invade the rights of an individual through a guardianship or conservatorship, and (2) as grounds for setting aside estate planning documents, deeds, beneficiary designations and contracts entered into by adults who are presumed to have the ability to understand what they are giving up and what they are getting in return.  Is it a good idea to reduce the proofs necessary for either or both of these outcomes?

Societal changes triggered by modern medicine and the resulting explosion of people living to an advanced age have come upon us quickly. The law evolves slowly, but evolve it must.  Elder law attorneys and probate litigators are struggling to find legal theories to adequately address the civil injuries impacting our clients and their family members.  Undue influence is an imperfect bandage, but for now, it’s the best we’ve got.

 

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Storm Clouds in Elder Law Land

It seems to me that we are living through what could be a case study on the way the law evolves to address a rapidly changing social environment. More people are living longer.  More people are experiencing age-related cognitive impairments.  At the same time family dysfunction seems to be the rule, not the exception.

As a result, the law in the arena of adult guardianships and conservatorships is experiencing stress and litigants are experiencing a high degree of instability with respect to the process and outcomes in the trial courts. Trial courts hardly know what to do with these cases. They need clearer direction.  The issues that are coming up are difficult and deeply personal, factually unique in each case.  The laws only offer general guidelines about how to resolve these conflicts.  It is time for our appellate courts to figure out how these laws can best be construed to provide just results notwithstanding the complex issues, and to make practical compromises to allow the system to work in larger counties. More laws, I think, are not the answer.

My thoughts on this topic were triggered by a recent unpublished opinion, In re Conservatorship of Janet Kapp (click on the name to read the case). The case itself is insignificant, but offers a good example of the issues that commonly arise in these matters – both in terms of the facts that are coming into court, and the legal challenges that trial courts are struggling to address.  But the problem has been festering for some time.  In fact, I wrote an article for the State Bar Journal several years ago on the topic: Adult Guardianships, the New Divorce (click on the name to read the article).  It was evident then that we were facing a storm, now it seems the storm has arrived.

The issues include:

What does a Court have to do before passing over a family member with priority and appointing a professional fiduciary?

What role does family dysfunction play in this decision? Is it good enough for the trial judge to say: “You all can’t get along, so I’m appointing someone from outside the family”?

What role does alienation of affection play? Where a family member keeps other family members away, is that per se a basis for passing over that family member, or must a court look into whether that decision is rationally based? [On this point it is interesting that legislation is being proposed to create a process to address family visitation rights for vulnerable adults.  Click here to read that proposed legislation.  I personally see this effort as well-meaning but misguided.  We don’t need more laws, and the process proposed by the legislation is, to my mind, unworkable.  Trial courts have this power now (click here to see blog post Seeing Redd, for instance).]

What role do existing estate planning documents play? In this new Kapp case we see the trial court simply blowing past the existing documents, based on a Guardian ad Litem’s conclusion that the older adults were probably impaired when they were signed.  Is that ok?

How much discretion do trial courts have in this context to avoid holding an evidentiary hearing?

In numerous unpublished opinions, the Court of Appeals has been all over the board on all of these issues. As for published opinions, in the last three years alone we have seen wild fluctuations from, for instance, the Bittner case (click here to read Bittner’s Bite) to the rather incredible legal conclusions reached in Brody (click here to read Another Brody Bombshell).  Trial courts need guidance, but we need to appreciate this guidance has to allow for practical implementation – a workable system.  It is one thing for an experienced and engaged trial judge in a small county to hold a two day (or more) trial on the issue of suitability, and another thing to tell larger counties with busy dockets and a high percentage of pro per litigants to do the same.

Some help may be coming. The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to take up Brody, and the Probate Section of the State Bar has been approved to file an Amicus Brief (proud to say that Chalgian and Tripp has been retained by the Section to prepare that brief).  But I wouldn’t expect too much.  While this case opens the door to the MSC to address many of these issues, they are likely to offer only some direction on the narrow issues in the appeal.

Finally, there’s an old saying: “May you live in interesting times,” and I’ve always felt that one of the things I enjoy about my chosen practice area is that it’s changing so rapidly, and the law is struggling to keep up – which makes for interesting times indeed for those of us who work with aging issues and vulnerable adult exploitation in particular. But when I looked up the saying on Wikipedia, I found this explanation of the saying, which suggests I may want to temper my enthusiasm:

“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purported to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, the expression is always normally used ironically, with the clear implication that ‘uninteresting times’ of peace and tranquillity are more life-enhancing than interesting ones, which from historical perspective usually include disorder and conflict.

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Meritless is Good. Frivolous would have been Better.

This is a Chalgian and Tripp case just handed down from the Court of Appeals. Unpublished.  Click here to read In Re Conservatorship of Ueal E. Patrick.

Ueal is a prominent business man in Jackson. He was involved in litigation.  Ueal’s health was declining and the stress of the litigation was making it worse.  In the context of working with him on a separate trust matter, we suggested that it might be beneficial to have his child Mark act as his conservator so that he (Mark) could handle the litigation.  Mark was already deeply involved in the management of the business, and very sophisticated in business matters.  In addition, predating all this was a power of attorney created by Ueal, appointing Mark as his agent, and nominating Mark as conservator should that become necessary.

A hearing was held at which several attorneys were present. The opposing parties did not contest that the appointment of a conservator was appropriate.  They simply opposed the appointment of Mark.  They presented no evidence, called no witnesses, merely made legal arguments.

On appeal, the appellant argued that the trial court erred in finding Ueal to be a person in need of a conservator, even though they stipulated to it in their pleadings and in court. They argued that the trial court erred by not requiring an independent medical exam be conducted to determine the amount of weight that should be given to Ueal’s nomination of Mark.  And they argued that Mark should not have been appointed because he had a conflict of interest with respect to the other matters being separately litigated.

The COA goes through each of appellant’s arguments, systematically pointing out the deficits in their reasoning. At various points the COA labels their arguments “abandoned,” “without merit,” and “meritless.” I beat up on our COA enough in this forum.  They got this one right.  I appreciate it.

Thanks to our John Mabley for doing an excellent job briefing the case and helping the COA clearly see the deficiencies in appellant’s positions.

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Another Brody Bombshell

UPDATE:  This decision was subsequently revised.  Some of the problematic aspects of the COA opinion were corrected.  See Better Than Nothing? for details.

 

This is a published Court of Appeals opinion involving the appointment of a conservator over an adult under EPIC. Click here to read In Re Conservatorship of Rhea Brody.

This case comes out of same family that was involved in the In Re Rhea Brody Living Trust, which case is the topic of the post earlier this month. That prior case dealt with the Rhea Brody Trust, and offered the surprising revelation that a contingent beneficiary of a Trust could contest the actions of the Trustee even while the trust remained revocable.  Click here to read that post.  This second Brody case deals with the appointment of a conservator for Ms. Brody.

The litigants in the case are aligned similarly. In the Trust matter, husband and son were aligned in defending the removal of husband as Trustee, which arose as a result of favorable business dealings between the husband as trustee and the son; which dealings were perceived as being done to the detriment of the daughter, a contingent beneficiary.  In this case, husband and son oppose appointment of a conservator, which appointment is supported by daughter.  The court appointed an attorney who was also acting as Trustee of Rhea’s Trust to serve as her conservator.  The COA affirms.

The husband, as appellant, contests pretty much every aspect of the trial court’s decision, except the finding that Rhea was incompetent. The conclusions of the COA are intriguing.  Look for this case to be cited often by litigators seeking to impose conservators and desiring to by-pass priorities of appointment.  To some extent, perhaps a large extent, this case is the counter balance to In Re Bittner, a relatively recent published opinion addressed in the post “Bittner’s Bite” (click on name to read that post).  In Bittner, the COA chastised a trial judge for imposing a conservator where the requirements of EPIC were not met.  Here, the COA goes to great lengths to justify the appointment over seemingly problematic facts.

One issue relates to whether the evidence supported the finding that appointment of a conservator was necessary to provide for management of assets and avoid waste. In this case the evidence is that husband was agent under a valid POA for Rhea, and further, that all of her assets (except one IRA) were joint with husband.  Further, husband alleges that the IRA was set up to make minimum required distributions annually.  The basis for finding necessity appears to be the conclusion that husband wasn’t really managing these matters, but rather that he had “abdicated” his role to the son, and that son was a potentially devious manipulator of the situation.  The COA goes so far as to suggest that the appointment of a conservator was necessary so that someone independent could review the tax returns.

Which leads to another conclusion of law by the COA in this matter: that the appointment of a conservator does not require a finding that there has been waste of assets, only that such waste could occur in the future. So reasonably founded speculation is enough.

Additionally, and perhaps most concerning, are the findings of the COA with respect to the priority of appointment. The COA cites MCL 700.5409(1)(a)  for the proposition that an independent fiduciary has priority over a spouse and agent under a POA where the POA nominates the agent as conservator. MCL 700.5409(1)(a) says:

(1) The court may appoint an individual, a corporation authorized to exercise fiduciary powers, or a professional conservator described in section 5106 to serve as conservator of a protected individual’s estate. The following are entitled to consideration for appointment in the following order of priority:

(a) A conservator, guardian of property, or similar fiduciary appointed or recognized by the appropriate court of another jurisdiction in which the protected individual resides.

I have always understood this section to mean that a conservator previously appointed by another court would have priority. In this case, the COA seems to say that a professional fiduciary appointed as Trustee over the ward’s Trust by this same Court meets that definition.  The COA states:

Under MCL 700.5409, a protected individual’s spouse is entitled to consideration for appointment as conservator, and is granted priority over all other individuals except “[a] conservator, guardian of property, or similar fiduciary appointed or recognized by the appropriate court of another jurisdiction in which the protected individual resides,” MCL 700.5409(1)(a), and “[a]n individual or corporation nominated by the protected individual if he or she is 14 years of age or older and of sufficient mental capacity to make an intelligent choice, including a nomination made in a durable power of attorney,” MCL 700.5409(1)(b). As Rhea’s husband, Robert was an individual entitled to priority consideration. However, Robert was not entitled to consideration unless the probate court considered an independent fiduciary and found him or her unsuitable. Lyneis, as trustee and independent fiduciary, had statutory priority over Robert, despite Robert’s marriage to Rhea. MCL 700.5409(1).

Wait – WHAT? Where is the other jurisdiction?

Further, and maybe even more unsettling, the COA says:

The statute’s priority classifications are merely a guide for the probate court’s exercise of discretion.

Really?  This statement seems to fly in the face of a long line of cases that require a finding of unsuitability – including, perhaps ironically, the case of In re Guardianship of Dorothy Redd, which is the topic of the other post I wrote today, a case issued by a separate panel of the COA on the same date as this matter.

That said, the COA goes on to say that the husband is unsuitable, again, because the son is a manipulative fellow and may use his influence over husband to Rhea’s detriment in the future.

There are other issues addressed in this case, but I think I’ve hit the ones that seem most significant, and that are those most likely to be cited by litigators in the future.

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Seeing Redd

Here’s another important published opinion on the topic of adult guardianships. The case is about the removal of a guardian of an adult ward appointed under EPIC.

The case deals with the very common, and therefore very important, situation in which a guardian is using its position to undermine healthy family relations. In this case, the facts relied upon by the trial court and the COA are that the existing guardian was actively interfering with visitations, and taking steps to cause the ward to be distrustful of other family members.  These alienation cases go on all the time.  It is helpful to have an opinion that clarifies that such behavior is a basis for removal of a fiduciary.  It is likely that this case will be cited frequently where such facts arise, and I suspect that the finding that such behavior disqualifies a guardian will be offered by extension to cases involving conservators and other fiduciaries.  And that’s good.  We need this law.

So basically the trial court removed a guardian for the reason that he was undermining family relations, and the COA affirms. Click here to read In re Guardianship of Dorothy Redd.

In reaching its decision, the COA holds that the standard for removal is “suitable and willing to serve.” This finding is an important clarification of MCL 700.5310 which is silent on the requirement for removal.

The COA also finds that the standard of proof for removing a guardian for unsuitability is not clear and convincing evidence, but rather a preponderance. Interestingly, in reaching this conclusion the COA indicates that the standard for proving unsuitability in the initial appointment hearing is clear and convincing evidence.  This reading of the priorities in a guardianship proceedings seems inconsistent with the conclusions regarding priorities and unsuitability reached by a separate panel discussing these issues in the context of a conservatorship, as addressed in my other post of today’s date regarding In Re Conservatorship of Rhea Brody.

So, it’s a big day in the world of litigating guardianships and conservatorships. These two published cases (Brody II and Redd) will be cited in the future, each for their own important conclusions of law.  Probate litigation in the age of living to be 100, where the fun never ends.

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Attorney-Fiduciary Relationships

A new published circuit court case addresses the often confused issue of who an attorney hired by a fiduciary represents and is accountable to. This is technical stuff, so if you’re not in the mood or you don’t do this type or work, spare yourself and read no further.

In Estate of Tyler Jacob Maki (click on the name to read the case); the Court of Appeals affirms the trial court, and in doing so, holds that an attorney who is hired by a conservator cannot be sued for negligence by a subsequently appointed conservator. This is true because there is no attorney-client relationship between the subsequent conservator and the attorney, and also because the ward is not a third-party beneficiary of the contract between the first conservator and the attorney.

This issue comes up periodically. It is not unimportant.  At times appellate courts generate decisions that feed into the confusion.  However, this Court reaches the conclusion that I think most probate practitioners believe is the right result, and the result intended by MCR 5.117(A).  Presumably, this decision can be extended to cases in which other types of fiduciaries retain lawyers.

A lot more could be said about this issue and this case. I will limit my thoughts to these few additional points:

In a footnote the COA recognizes the apparent injustice in the result – the result being that if a person who is under the protection of the court has a fiduciary, and that vulnerable person is injured as a result of the bad acts of their court-appointed fiduciary, and that harm could have been avoided if the lawyer representing the fiduciary (and being paid by the ward) had taken steps to protect the ward, a subsequent fiduciary appointed to clean up the mess can’t seek recovery from the lawyer even if they could show that the lawyer’s conduct was negligent. The COA says, that may not be good public policy, but public policy is not their job.  Take it up with the legislature.

Second point, the COA glosses over the fact that the conservator, who stole money from the ward, was apparently not sufficiently bonded. I don’t know the facts and there is very little in the opinion to go on.  But when you read this opinion you can’t help but wonder: How did this ever turn into a malpractice action against the lawyer? Or, said another way: Why didn’t the bonding company make the ward whole?  As best I can make out from the opinion, the reason that the conservator was apparently not sufficiently bonded is because the lawyer didn’t report the money from a personal injury settlement paid to the ward on the inventory or accountings because the lawyer, knowing that the settlement was subject to a confidentiality provision, didn’t think he had to.  Well, if that is what happened, there’s something very wrong with this picture.  Clearly the Trial Court would have been informed of the settlement, and clearly there are ways to set a sufficient bond without putting the amount of the settlement in the record.

Finally, in its decision, this Court spends time distinguishing between “standing” and the “real party in interest” rule which, for litigators, may be worth a read.

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Medical Experts Carry Conservatorship Case

medical expert

Nice analysis in this recent unpublished COA opinion. Click here to read In Re Conservatorship of Stephen Michalak.  Congrats to my colleague Valerie Kutz-Otway for her successful advocacy on behalf of her client, Mr. Michalak.

The case suggests an issue that I think we all struggle with at times, the extent to which the determination of capacity is a legal or medical matter. While the correct answer is clearly – it’s a legal determination made by the probate judge – as the analysis suggests, the line is fuzzy at best.  Courts often rely extensively on medical opinions to make their findings, and the use of medical experts is becoming more and more important in our practices.  This opinion only bolsters the proposition that medical opinions carry a lot of weight – especially, where, as in this case, they remain uncontroverted by offsetting medical proofs.

It is worth note that in this case that the COA does not order that the conservatorship be terminated, but only remands the matter and instructs the trial judge to consider a less restrictive arrangement, which could be a limited conservatorship or, although not suggested by the COA, perhaps the execution of a new power of attorney by Mr. Michalak appointing someone other than the petitioner-child.

This case relies heavily on the Bittner decision, discussed in a prior post (click here to read about Bittner) and displays some of the same dynamics – probate judges seeing problems with vulnerable adults and moving to put the matter under their watch so as avoid further mischief – an understandable and somewhat noble sentiment.  But the COA here, as in Bittner, pushes back against this inclination; reminding us once again that the balance of dignity and independence against safety and convenience remains the tricky sticky wicket at the heart of our common efforts.  For more on my thoughts on “the balance” click here.

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Litigation Strategies Part VII: The Hands that Rock the Cradle

Petitions, motions, discovery. It all matters.  But when it comes to winning the guardianship/conservatorship case, there is an additional element – managing the court-appointed players.  Specifically, the guardian ad litem (“GAL”) and doctor (usually a psychologist but sometimes psychiatrist) who conducts the independent medical evaluation.

The GAL

While all judges are different, most judges give great weight to the recommendations of the GAL, and in more than a few counties, the judge will practically defer to the report and recommendations of the GAL when making a decision.

So that means to the lawyer needs to do everything within their power to get the GAL on their side, or at least neutralize them. Start communicating early – but don’t be pushy.  Typically GALs begin their investigation at the last minute, and prepare their reports the day before a hearing.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a friendly conversation early on to let them know what the case is about (a la your spin), and let them know that you and your clients are available when needed if more information would be helpful.

While the Court Rules allow an attorney to call the GAL as a witness and cross examine the GAL on their report – the goal is to avoid that. In most counties, the same GALs appear over and over before the same judge.  They have a relationship.  Beating up on the judge’s friend doesn’t necessarily advance your case – even if you do a great job of it.

The Doc

Likewise, even when you bring your own medical expert to court, the judge in most counties is going to give greater weight to the doctor they commonly appoint than to the experts retained by the parties, who the judge may perceive as hired guns.

Accordingly, as with the GAL, the sooner you establish communications with the court-appointed medical expert, the better. Unless the Court specifically orders attorneys not to communicate with the doctor, I highly recommend sending the doctor a letter outlining the case (a la your spin) and offering to provide more information or discuss the matter with them at a convenient time.

Another term to know in this context is “historian.” When doctors evaluate people for cognitive impairment, they almost always turn to the person who came with the impaired adult to the appointment for information that is used in their report to verify whether the things the impaired adult describes are consistent with what is actually going on. In the medical reports, this person is often called the “historian.”

While the doctor may appreciate that in a contested matter everyone has a different perspective, and may believe that s/he can glean helpful facts from the historian without adopting the historian’s perspective on the case, if the doctor likes the historian, the doctor will often present an opinion that is at least not adverse to that historian’s legal position.

SO – if at all possible, you want your client to be the historian. If that cannot be accomplished, your carefully crafted written summary to the doctor is all the more important, and may need to include information undermining the credibility of the person who the doctor can expect to meet when the impaired adult is brought to the appointment (aka, the historian).

Conclusion

Appreciate the important role played by the GAL and the court-appointed doctor in guardianship/conservatorship cases. Winning without them is an uphill battle.  Bring them on board early and keep the lines of communication open.  In these types of cases, they are the hands that rock the cradle. Recognize that they may well control the outcome of the case from behind the bench – and act accordingly.

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