When people incapable of caring for themselves or their money end up in Maricopa County Probate Court, judges turn to a list of contract lawyers who have been pre-screened to represent those clients.
A Phoenix firm has handled hundreds of the cases, and some of its attorneys have raised their hourly rates on clients without notifying them in writing, court records show, an apparent violation of ethics rules that require such disclosure.
The firm of Theut, Theut and Theut increased its hourly rates 2.5 percent to 70 percent in half of 50 cases examined by The Arizona Republic. Most of the increases were at least 20 percent. The cases lasted months to several years. The firm, among the Valley's busiest with court-appointed probate cases, netted thousands in additional fees.
Although hikes in any one case may have yielded only a small amount of additional revenue, the increases went into effect unquestioned by judges and commissioners. That, some lawyers and a judge say, illustrates how the Probate Court has failed to provide oversight for the incapacitated clients it is supposed to protect.
An ongoing Republic investigation of the county Probate Court has found that attorneys and private fiduciaries charge fees that can quickly deplete an incapacitated person's life savings. Judges rarely reverse or stop the charges, even when the ward ends up broke and in state-paid care.
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Maricopa County Probate Court: Lawyers Often Ratchet Up Fees