WASHINGTON (ABC7) — If you're not careful, an attorney might take control of everything you own, charge you hundreds of dollars an hour, and you or your family won't be able to fire them. If that sounds unfair, it happens every day at probate court.
“I had an apartment building down the street and they just sold that,” said Northeast Washington resident Reggie Battle.
A D.C. Probate judge assigned Battle an attorney to look after his property after an operation and hospitalization. After recovering, Battle says he found out his property was sold while mowing the grass around his apartment building.
"He said, ‘You don't have to cut it no more, because we already sold it for $500,000 and I still haven't got any money from it,’" recalled Battle.
In fact, probate attorneys are taking money from Battle's estate, all in the name of protecting him.
“I'm paying $325 an hour. Even phone calls. They charge me for phone calls and everything,” added Battle.
"No family, no citizen should go to probate court and lose their resources, lose their dignity and lose what they worked hard for. Probate court is supposed to help, not hurt,” said Battle’s neighbor and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kathy Henderson.
Terri Jordan walked through her Southeast Washington home, thinking every day may be her last living there. The home actually belonged to her father before he died.
"There wasn't a will and we owe conservatorship fees, so they want to sell our house to pay for personal conservatorship fees,” said Jordan.
In a third and separate case, Teresa Washington regrets going to court seeking help to access her ill father's bank accounts.
"You have somebody come in there and just take over. Take over the homes. Take over everything,” said Washington.
7 On Your Side found probate attorneys charge families as much as $350 dollars an hour in D.C. It's not just for legal work. They can also charge $350 an hour for making calls to get other people to do work on getting a house ready to sell. It's all legal.
7 On Your Side asked probate attorneys working with the people we interviewed for this story to explain what's going on. Those attorneys declined. We also asked the probate judges to address the complaints coming to 7 On Your Side. They declined to go on camera.
A judicial source tells ABC7 News the court "struggles" with figuring out how much probate attorneys charge families and what work they can charge at a full rate. There's admittedly little oversight.
In fact, there's a lot not known about Probate. Ask the experts, from the American Bar Association: "Their estimate is 1.3 million adults subject to guardianship," said Erica Wood of the ABA. "We don't know because data in the guardianship system is very uneven. Very scant."
To the experts at the Government Accountability Office, which tried to uncover how many probate abuse complaints existed: “What is known about the extent of abuse? The bottom line is we know very little,” said GAO Director Kathryn Larin. “Knowing which types of abuse are most prevalent, knowing where the problems are located, we really just don't know the answers to those questions.”
Probate attorneys say the best way to avoid the problems of probate court is to set up a “living revocable trust.”
Daniel Ruttenberg of SmolenPlevy legal firm answers some viewer questions about what you can do to protect yourself in this extended interview:
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7 ON YOUR SIDE: Losing everything at probate court