Superior Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux in 1988
Every day, hundreds of children and their parents stream through the doors of the Lamoreaux Juvenile Justice Center in Orange. Some are in trouble with the law, some are from fractured families. All are hoping for justice tempered with mercy.
Now Lamoreaux is in danger of being financially drained, in part by the very justice system to which she dedicated her life.
Lamoreaux, 92, has Alzheimer’s dementia, according to court records. Her family – mostly nieces and nephews, as Lamoreaux has no children – is trying to care for her and preserve her estate. But they’ve fought over how best to do that, and about who should be in charge of Lamoreaux’s money, and they’ve taken the fight to probate court.
The family dispute has grown to include no fewer than three judges and nine lawyers and related professionals, with more attorneys set to join the fracas.
Now, some in the family are afraid the trip to probate court could end with attorney fees swallowing up “Auntie Lou’s” nest egg, forcing her to sell her $1.8 million house in Newport Beach.
They argue that the particulars of probate court are problematic.
“The very court system she served, and was honored by, is now bilking her of her life savings,” says Duff McGrath, her 58-year-old nephew and her trustee.
“It wouldn’t happen to Betty Lou Lamoreaux if it wasn’t happening to a lot of other people. The system is flawed.”
McGrath’s frustrations are echoed by many in probate court – where the affairs of a loved one can be taken out of the hands of family members and turned over to experts who often are paid hundreds of dollars an hour. Every year, nearly 5,000 probate-guardianship cases grind their way through probate court in Orange County.
In theory, the work is done by sincere professionals trying to protect their clients.
But by nature, the process of turning one’s affairs over to lawyers and their subcontractors can get expensive, even when fees must be approved by the court.
Good work, some argue, takes time. And in probate court, time definitely is money.
“Even if you’re trying to do a good job (on behalf of the client), the longer it takes to do a good job, the more money you get,” said Kurt Eggert, director of the Alona Cortese Elder Law Center in Orange.
“There is the incentive to prolong the case.”
Until 2014, Lamoreaux shared her Newport Beach home with her 87-year-old sister, Shirley, and a niece. Over the years, as Lamoreaux’s dementia worsened, her house fell into disrepair, to the point of being unhealthy, according to court records.
McGrath and some family members went to probate court in 2015, hoping to get a court order that would give them the authority to separate Lamoreaux from those they felt would do her harm.
McGrath had moved Lamoreaux from her house to a senior living center in Corona del Mar while her home was undergoing repairs.
The court responded by appointing two people to the case, an attorney and a guardian – who also is an attorney – to represent Lamoreaux.
That’s when the legal wrangling began.
The court appointees, after speaking with Lamoreaux, believed she wants to move back home with her sister. A judge agreed and ordered McGrath to help Lamoreaux return home, a ruling McGrath has appealed.
McGrath hired his own legal team, who argued that Lamoreaux should stay at the center, which they noted has the expertise and facilities to care for her.
Along the way, the case picked up more professional consultants, a fiduciary and a few more lawyers, all charging from $200 to $450 an hour.
McGrath said the total, when everybody is working – including his attorneys – is about $3,000 an hour.
Experts hired in the case declined comment or did not return telephone messages.
Lamoreaux’s fate now is in the hands of Judge Kim R. Hubbard. A hearing is set for Tuesday to determine whether McGrath should be removed from his trustee position.
Lamoreaux’s physician has indicated that she should not be moved at this time, and she repeatedly tells friends that she wants to stay at the center, according to court records.
The attorney appointed by the court to represent Lamoreaux, Ernest Hayward, requested this week’s emergency hearing to determine whether McGrath should be thrown out as trustee and replaced with a professional. McGrath accuses Hayward of attempting to wrest more control over Lamoreaux’s affairs.
Regardless of who is right, finding the answer may get even more expensive than it’s been so far.
“We fell into a spiderweb,” said McGrath. “It’s been a year and a half of hell.”
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The perils of probate court: Former judge with Alzheimer's could lose her life savings