Court Orders Plaintiff to Pay All Fees in Withdrawn Contested Guardianship Case

A trial court ruled that the plaintiff, who brought but ultimately withdrew the complaint in a contested guardianship case, must pay the legal fees of both the alleged incapacitated person and the court-appointed evaluator.  Matter of Madeline H., 31441-I-2015

This contested New York guardianship case was settled after extensive conferences pursuant to a stipulation of settlement which provided that the complaint was withdrawn without prejudice. In addition, the stipulation of settlement set aside up to $50,000 for payment of legal fees, and provided that the court was to apportion legal fees of the court evaluator and the counsel for the alleged incapacitated person (AIP) between the petitioner and the AIP.

The trial judge noted that, when a guardianship complaint is denied or dismissed, the governing New York statute permits the judge, in his or her discretion, to award reasonable fees to the court evaluator, payable by the petitioner, the AIP or both. Likewise, the law permits judges to order a petitioner to pay reasonable compensation to counsel for the AIP when a petition is dismissed.

Although the court recognized that the law failed to address the Court’s power to award fees when a petition is withdrawn, the judge said a withdrawn petition served as the “functional equivalent” of a dismissed guardianship complaint, giving the court the same authority to award fees provided when a complaint is denied or dismissed.

Having identified its statutory authority to rule in the case, the Court then concluded that the plaintiff, who was the AIP’s son, was entirely responsible for the legal fees.  The Court wrote that the “petitioner’s motives were at the very least questionable in commencing this ultimately meritless guardianship proceeding.” The Court also noted that the guardianship matter was just the latest battle in fights including a divorce case between the mother and father, as well as a “complicated trust dispute in Surrogate’s Court.” The judge said that his conclusion that “the petitioner, who is in a far superior financial position compared to the [AIP], did not bring this proceeding for altruistic purposes is inescapable.”

The Court also declared that the court evaluator’s report “unequivocally and emphatically concluded” the AIP was not incapacitated, and noted that the efforts made by the counsel for the AIP led to a positive result for his client, “with her civil liberties fully intact, there being no need for a guardian for her.”

As a result, the Court ordered the petitioner to pay approximately $27,000 to counsel for the AIP and nearly $23,000 to the court evaluator. The AIP had to pay nothing.

The case is annexed here – Matter of Madeline H

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