People often ask me what we can do about the mess that is probate court. How, they ask, might Marie Long have managed to hang on to some of her life savings instead of watching an estate worth $1.3 million plummet to zero in just four years?
What steps can people take to avoid falling victim to a system where fiduciaries and attorneys so often seem to wind up with a nice pile of cash, courtesy of the people they're supposed to be protecting?
Finally, I have an answer.
A bill was introduced in the Arizona House on Tuesday that would make it easier for vulnerable people or their representatives to have some say in who is handling their money and their care.
I know. It's radical stuff. Right now, the deck is stacked in favor of court-appointed fiduciaries and if you try to remove them, they use your money to fend you off.
House Bill 2424, sponsored by Rep. David Burnell Smith, R-Carefree, won't be the only probate proposal before the Legislature this year. Sen. John Nelson, R-Glendale, also has one and others are in the works. Thus far, I'm skeptical about Nelson's proposal, which is taken from a draft report of the Supreme Court's probate review committee. It appears to actually strengthen the fiduciaries' hand, although Nelson says that's not his intent. I do appreciate his reasoning for wanting to fix what ails probate.
“There was probably some good intention in putting the system together but candidly, I think it's being abused,” Nelson told me. “I think people are finding ways of using clients' money for their own benefit. When somebody goes in with a million-and-a-half-dollar estate and comes out with nothing … something's wrong.”
Something is wrong and now the Legislature could ride to the rescue, led by a freshman lawmaker on his second stint at the state Capitol, having been forced out a few years ago for not following the state's Clean Elections law.
“I was concerned about articles I read in the paper, some of the abuses that you point out,” Smith said, in explaining why he introduced HB 2424. “In fact, I knew some of the people involved in one case.”
Smith was referring to Bill Lund, who became embroiled in a probate dispute involving the trusts of his children, the grandchildren of Walt Disney. Lund hired a former state legislator, Laura Knaperek, to lobby for the bill.
"We're just trying to put more accountaibility in the courts and give wards more rights," she said.
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Will the Legislature Ride to the Rescue of the People in Probate