Attorneys Fees in Probate and Guardianship Cases: Is the Chronicle Telling the Whole Story?

As I mentioned in my last post, the Houston Chronicle published a front-page article on Friday, October 22, 2010, regarding the attorneys’ fees approved by the Probate Courts in Harris County and the other large counties around the state. I wanted to provide insight into some of the issues raised in the article.

Attorneys fees in probate and guardianship cases can be incurred in 2 different ways – 1) a client can hire an attorney to represent them in a probate or guardianship case, or 2) the Court can appoint an attorney to work on a probate or guardianship case. In both cases, the attorneys are required to present their fees to the Probate Court for approval.

The Chronicle complains about the “high” fees that are charged in the various cases that are approved by the Probate Courts in Harris County. However, the article does not point out that many of the attorneys whose fees are submitted for approval are hired by ordinary citizens who are doing nothing but trying to handle a difficult situation through the Courts. When that client hires the attorney, the client agrees to the rate that will be charged, and the client agrees that they will pay the rate. Unlike any other area of law, however, the Probate Code requires most of those attorney’s fees to be submitted to the Court for approval before the client can pay the fees out of the estate assets. Regardless, though, it is the client who is asking the Court to approve the fees, and although the Court has to examine the fees to determine that they are legitimate, the Court should in most cases defer to the client who has retained the services of the attorney to monitor whether the fees are reasonable or not.

In cases where the Court has appointed an attorney to participate in a particular proceeding, the Court should, as the Chronicle point outs, review the fees charged and apply standards for approving those fees. In my experience, the Probate Courts in Harris County do an excellent job of monitoring these fees. While there could always be instances where the system has been abused, the reality is that the system works very well in Houston, and there is not a good case to be made that the system is as “corrupt” as the Chronicle wants to suggest that it is.

I find it curious that the Chronicle is so quick to judge the Probate Courts, but they have not offered any sort of solution to the problem that they think they have identified. Keep reading for more posts on this topic.