$211,000 in Fiduciary and Attorney’s Fees O.K. After Sibling Probate Quarrel

In a recent Appellate Court decision, the court upheld an award of $211,000 in fiduciary and attorney’s fees after probate of a highly disputed estate. The award was challenged by one of the three beneficiaries of the estate who claimed the award was excessive and inconsistent with the widely relied on Hayward factors set out by the Connecticut Supreme Court. Plaintiff also urged the court to adopt a new rule limiting the fiduciary and attorney’s fees that can be collected from an estate to an amount proportionate to the size of the estate. The court disagreed with the contention and declined to adopt such a rule.

The plaintiff and challenger of said fees was the daughter of the decedent. The other two beneficiaries in this probate were the two sons of the decedent. None of these siblings had a good relationship with the other and there was constantly disputes among them about how to best administer the estate. Ultimately, the court determined it was their constant bickering that resulted in the huge amount of attorney fees that in light of the situation could have been much more.

This probate case “involved more contentiousness, disputes, arguments, correspondence, pleadings, memoranda of law and judicial hearings than any other decedent’s estate” in the judge’s 30 years on the bench. The defendants’ expert witness, who reviewed the materials that detailed the requests the siblings made of Gallant(the defendant), testified that “the contentiousness [between the beneficiaries is] at a level I have only seen once in some forty-four years of this work.” The plaintiff’s expert witness conceded that the extensive quarrelling among the siblings made settling the estate “a very difficult matter,” and that one of the strategies defendant used to try to quell the siblings’ animosity was to directly and unequivocally tell them the truth: their constant quarrelling was resulting in fees that were diminishing the estate.

Despite this forewarning by the defendant lawyer, the plaintiff still sought to challenge the awarded fee. It was her firm belief that an attorney could not collect such a large amount of an estate. In actuality, the estate was worth over 1.2 million dollars and his fee constituted just 1/6th of the estate. This left more than 1 million to be dispersed between the three children.

In analyzing the issues claimed by the Plaintiff the Appellate Court reviewed the Hayward factor analysis made by the trial court who awarded the fee. First, the court stated it is well understood that “under [Connecticut] law an executor, administrator, trustee or guardian is entitled to a reasonable compensation for his services, depending upon the circumstances of the case.” Hayward v. Plant, 98 Conn. at 384, 119 A. 341. Further, in Hayward, our Supreme Court set forth nine factors for the trial court to consider when determining the reasonableness of such compensation: (1) the size of the estate; (2) the responsibilities involved; (3) the character of the work required; (4) the special problems and difficulties met in doing the work; (5) the results achieved; (6) the knowledge, skill and judgment required of and used by the executors; (7) the manner and promptitude with which the estate has been settled; (8) the time and service required; and (9) any other circumstances which may appear in the case and are relevant and material to this determination. Id., at 384–85, 119 A. 341.

After the determination of those factors, the trial court decided the figure of $211,000 was reasonable. In reviewing that decision “[t]he test is, has the court exercised a reasonable discretion, or, in other words, is its exercise so unreasonable as to constitute an abuse of discretion.” Hayward v. Plant, supra, 98 Conn. at 382, 119 A. 341. “This standard applies to the amount of fees awarded … and also to the trial court’s determination of the factual predicate justifying the award…. Under the abuse of discretion standard of review, [w]e will make every reasonable presumption in favor of upholding the trial court’s ruling, and only upset it for a manifest abuse of discretion…. [Thus, our] review of such rulings is limited to the questions of whether the trial court correctly applied the law and reasonably could have reached the conclusion that it did.”

There was much factual information that supported the trial court’s decision. At trial, the plaintiff conceded that the billing records submitted by the defendants to the Probate Court accurately reflected the work that the defendants performed, but she advanced an argument that much of that work was unnecessary and could have been avoided had Gallant been more decisive in his actions with regard to the estate. Her primary argument was that Gallant’s inability to sell the Bahamian property(which amount to about half of the estate) in a timely fashion and the erosion that occurred on the property during the time the property was for sale support a reduction of fiduciary and attorney’s fees under Hayward’s results and promptitude factors. The court, however, was presented with evidence of the siblings’ contentiousness and litigious nature, and determined that “an extensive amount of time was spent by Gallant in dealing with issues raised by the beneficiaries.” Among the myriad issues created by the beneficiaries included bickering about the listing price of the Bahamian property. Therefore, the award did have factual backing and could have been anticipated by plaintiff due to the siblings constant issues with how to best settle the estate.

So, with regard to the question of whether the court used the proper legal standard, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court made an independent determination after a two day trial. It produced a written memorandum of decision, which provided in part: “When applying the standards set forth in Hayward v. Plant, the court finds that the fees charged by the defendants are reasonable under the unusual circumstances presented here.” Therefore, there was no error in the legal standard applied by the court.

Next, the Appellate Court addressed the plaintiff’s contention that a new rule should be adopted that limited attorney and fiduciary fees to a reasonable proportion of the estate. In declining to adopt such a rule the court stated that “size of the estate is one of the factors our Supreme Court set forth in Hayward, and as such, it should be considered by a court in determining whether fiduciary and attorney’s fees are reasonable. It is, however, one of nine factors. Elevating it to the dispositive level suggested by the plaintiff would run afoul of the sound holistic approach to reasonableness our Supreme Court set forth nearly a century ago.”
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