Probate judges often OK nonlegal billing

Tow truck calls, pawn shop visits are some charges

Lise Olsen (
July 9, 2007
Houston Chronicle (TX)

For visiting their wards, for opening bank accounts and for selling used cars, tasks that hardly require a law degree, some probate judges have approved bills submitted by lawyers at rates of $200 to $400 an hour, the Houston Chronicle found in an investigation of Texas probate courts.

In both Harris and Dallas counties, guardians have billed legal rates for calling a towing service, visiting pawn shops and reviewing checking accounts, based on a Chronicle review of bills.

Their pay comes from funds families set aside to care for the disabled and elderly, such as the mentally ill mother of schoolteacher Tiffany Varner.

With the Harris County Probate Court’s approval, more than $34,000 was applied to legal guardianship bills for Varner’s mother last year. That’s about what Varner, a 25-year-old with a master’s degree, says she makes in her full-time job as an Austin elementary schoolteacher.

Three phone calls
Varner asked the court to allow her to serve as guardian, but Judge Mike Wood selected attorney Stacy Kelly, a legal guardian who at the time worked at one of the top-earning law firms in Harris County Probate Court. Wood selected Kelly after Varner’s mother — who earlier had signed a power of attorney granting her daughter guardianship — decided she didn’t want her daughter or anyone else to serve as her guardian.
Kelly billed $280 an hour for failed attempts to visit Varner’s mother, for talking to her by phone — three separate times — about a leaky water heater, for paying a traffic ticket and for making bank deposits, records show.

In an interview last year, Kelly said her bills, all approved by Wood, accurately reflected her work and that she generally charges her legal rate for everything she does in any case. She would not comment about specific details, citing her client’s right to privacy.

In November, Varner began to legally challenge the fees in an attempt to get some money back. She argued they were improper, excessive and included work “that never should have been charged” to her mother’s case at all, court files show.

New rules adopted
In an interview last year, Wood said he does not approve legal fees for nonlegal work in guardianship cases but that some might “slip through.”
Wood acknowledged that mistakes are sometimes made and that, because of his high caseload, he usually leaves billing details to his staff.

After the Chronicle’s questions about fees, all four Harris County probate judges agreed to adopt new rules capping attorneys’ fees and barring attorneys from charging legal rates for nonlegal services.

The rules cap hourly rates at $300 and instruct lawyers to not charge legal fees for inappropriate tasks. The rules took effect in January.

Among other charges, Kelly’s firm billed in 2006 for preparing the very court order it needs to pay itself, records show — though Kelly said the billing was likely a mistake.

“I’m frustrated because I don’t even feel like they’re doing their job,” Varner said in an interview last year. ”And I feel like they’re charging us for unnecessary fees.”

The guardianship for Tiffany Varner’s mother formally ended at a hearing on Wednesday. So did the fee dispute, though family representatives refused to comment on the settlement.