Houston businessman’s fee dispute comes with a cost

Probate critic fighting fees charged to his mother, while courts say he’s racking up the bills

Lise Olsen (lise.olsen@chron.com)
June 24, 2007
Houston Chronicle (TX)

The Texas probate system allows any interested party to object to court fees. But the costly process can backfire.

One of those who has fought the hardest is Houston businessman Mike Epstein, an active probate critic. For more than a decade, Epstein has hired attorneys and accountants to challenge legal fees charged to his disabled mother, bills that often exceeded her monthly income of $10,000.

That guardian, John A. Hutchison III, a top probate court appointee and a former probate judge known for his mediation skills, has blamed Epstein for running up the bills.”Some of what he’s done kind of defies logic and good sense,” Hutchison said in an interview. “He spent over $700,000 in attorneys’ fees objecting to just about everything we did.”

Meanwhile, his mother’s income declined as her jewelry, real estate, car and other assets were sold off to pay for her care and for the legal dispute — money paid to both the court-appointed guardian and attorneys he hired to fight her son.

Epstein says his legal fees for fighting the trust and guardianship issues total only about $285,000, though he admits the fight has been costly to himself and to his mother. Epstein pursued multiple appeals, most of which he lost, including three visits to the state Supreme Court, records show.

Meanwhile, fees to pay Hutchison and lawyers hired to defend him also piled up.

Hutchison himself has earned $331,000 in the case since 1996. In all, Epstein claims, Hutchison and other attorneys in the case have been paid about $700,000.

Probate Judge Mike Wood said he could not discuss details but defended the payments: “Hutchison is a guy I can go to and trust to do a good job.”

Hutchison added: “If the family contests the stuff, it gets to be expensive. It’s unfortunate.”