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How to close things off with attorney

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Whoops2u

Active Member
My wife's father died a couple of years ago. We went to the attorney who wrote the parent's trust years ago to settle things. She is the sole direct beneficiary with her son as contingent beneficiary. We had four goals:
1. Make wife trustee of the trust.
2. Create a declaration/abstract of trust so she can deal with trust issues with third parties.
3. Oversee distribution of house to wife and prepare deed in her name.
4. Advise on how the house distribution should be completed to not trigger a property tax reassessment. (Parent/child transfer.)

All information and original documents were brought to the original meeting where the death of the wife (my wife's mother) six months prior was discussed. No recommendations were made at the meeting other than the fact we should publish, even if there is not probate, just in case there was something out there we didn't know about. For the work we got a contract to pay $5,000 unrefundable with $1,000 for costs. (Mostly publication.)

Things become busy and nothing seems to get done, although my wife is not really putting any pressure on attorney. (Who was also having personal problems at the time. His spouse died a short time before our meeting and he got remarried during the time no work was getting done on the project. I motivated my wife and we both again went to the attorney a year after our original meeting with our goals and told him that all we want is the work done and don't really want to worry or talk about what was or was not done previously. He agreed. Although at this meeting he seemed to be surprised mom had died.

After a month he sends a bill for 20 hours of $500 work. Along with that, there was an affidavit of death to sign. There was credit given for the 5K paid on the bill. We told him to stop all work.

The one complication is the trust was a standard AB trust where father did not fund the B trust on mother's death.

The attorney has not given any advice or identified any legal issues to us in the work he did. We have no idea how much more it would cost to complete the engagement with the attorney and achieve our goals. Yet, we have $5K outstanding invoice with the guy and I'm wondering my next steps.

I have been quoted, from two other attorneys, fixed cost engagements for a $1-2 thousand less than the $5,000 we thought was a fixed price contract with the current attorney. The billing from the current attorney with the 20 hours was pretty sloppily done. Block billing, the attorney charging his $500 rate for him copying and typing in forms as he now has a virtual office rather than a fixed business with employees, and the hours of research without identifying any issues that would call for it are all major problems. If I go to the county Bar's billing arbitration, I honestly don't think he would win. We'd owe something, but with the dual claims of thinking it was a fixed fee contract that was reasonable to what others would charge and the problems in the billing from him treating it like an hourly fee contract, I have no idea what would be fair.

My plan is to send a letter to the attorney and restate our goals--which haven't changed from notes and some emails to the attorney from the start. Describe why we felt the contract was fixed fee (additional billings at rates listed in the contract was for additional services) and tell him we expect the goals achieved for the money he already has.

What could go in the letter, but I'm not sure if now is the time, is a detailed explanation as to why we feel the billing is balderdash to the point of fraud. But then the game is on and the goals are delayed until we go through whatever arbitration, litigation and ethics complaints require. Because of the amount billed, even getting another attorney to achieve the goals before resolving things with the current attorney could put us on the line for the other attorneys costs in addition to this one's.

What would the tone of your letter be? Would you offer to pay some of the additional billing IF the goals are completed?
 


Zigner

Senior Member, Non-Attorney
My wife's father died a couple of years ago. We went to the attorney who wrote the parent's trust years ago to settle things. She is the sole direct beneficiary with her son as contingent beneficiary. We had four goals:
1. Make wife trustee of the trust.
The attorney doesn't do that - the trust does.
2. Create a declaration/abstract of trust so she can deal with trust issues with third parties.
That should have already been included with the trust.
3. Oversee distribution of house to wife and prepare deed in her name.
Can't hurt to have an attorney for this.
4. Advise on how the house distribution should be completed to not trigger a property tax reassessment. (Parent/child transfer.)
That's a simple form that's filed at the county.

I understand the above information doesn't directly help with your question, but it may assist you. I do believe that the attorney's "non-refundable" fee agreement may not be valid in this matter. I would suggest that you contact the state BAR about this matter. Best of luck.
 

quincy

Senior Member
I just noticed your username and am surprised you are asking for help on this. Where did your research skills go? :)

Ask your attorney for a detailed accounting of all expenses, including time spent, and hire another attorney. The new attorney will have your case files transferred to him.

If the contract with the first attorney does not clearly and prominently state a retainer fee is earned on payment or is non refundable, any unearned portion needs to be refunded.
 

Zigner

Senior Member, Non-Attorney
If the contract with the first attorney does not clearly and prominently state a retainer fee is earned on payment or is non refundable, any unearned portion needs to be refunded.
Even if it does state that it's non refundable, such a statement may not be valid in this matter. The OP's case is, in my opinion, not one that would easily lend itself to a flat-fee arrangement.
 

quincy

Senior Member
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Whoops2u

Active Member
I agree that most (but the deed) can pretty easily be done by myself. But, while I deal with attorneys on a regular basis, I'm not one. This is my wife's inheritance. She's the one who picked this attorney because it was the one dad choose so he must be alright. However, she recognizes the time has gone on too long for what seems to be fairly ministerial acts and she wants me to step in and resolve things.

When I asked an acquaintance attorney who takes me out golfing at his club (He has to spend so much a month. I'm an end-of-the-month to meet the minimum guy who recommends him to partners/members who need estate advice.) he did not see what the problem was. Even IF someone actually cared about the B trust funding, he said my wife as successor trustee of the B trust could just disclaim the amount from flowing to the B trust and have it stay in the now irrevocable trust. There would be no liability as she has full rights to distribute all from either trust at her sole discretion.

I've researched the types of terms and conditions that differentiate a fixed fee and a hourly contract and both are included here. Reasonable people could go either way. The fee beyond the unrefundable amount up front is in the "additional services" section of the agreement. (As in, "additional services beyond those covered by this agreement will be billed at the following rates".) The $5,000 fee up front was earned at agreement to the engagement according to the agreement. I don't have the agreement in front of me but there some form-type clauses that could lead one to think it is the more normal hourly billing type agreement. He's the one who wrote the contract so will need to defend his interpretation. But even if it is considered an hourly billing contract, the actual billing falls below the general standards of the industry. If it ever gets to it, I suspect there is no record for 12.5 hours of research block billed. It will be interesting to see what issues he was trying to resolve through the research at all. It's not like we are talking to a newly-minted couple hundred dollars an hour guy who might need to look things up to even get a basis to see any issues.

I can get the work done for clear fixed-fee amounts of $4,000 or $3,250 from other attorneys so know that at least the first two attorneys I talked to felt a fixed-fee was fair for the type of work needed.

The county Bar is the place I go for a fee dispute for arbitration. The state Bar is where I go for ethics complaints. But, I didn't really ask about the law as much as the best course. I think I'm pretty good on the law and have some level of expert confirmation. I was looking more for the tone of the letter and if, in similar circumstances, how much money would a person shovel out to bury this problem.
 
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quincy

Senior Member
It is generally best to first sit down for a personal chat with the lawyer to have any and all questions on billing addressed. The attorney should be able to justify all costs.

A lot depends on the contract.

I don't think the "tone" of any communication with an attorney should be anything but professional.

How much you are willing to pay to "bury the problem" is a personal decision.
 

Whoops2u

Active Member
It is generally best to first sit down for a personal chat with the lawyer to have any and all questions on billing addressed. The attorney should be able to justify all costs.

A lot depends on the contract.

I don't think the "tone" of any communication with an attorney should be anything but professional.

How much you are willing to pay to "bury the problem" is a personal decision.
Professionals can be nice and professionals can be not nice.

From the focus on the contract and ability to justify all costs, I'm thinking I'm going not nice. I will professionally expect him to make assurances he will complete the work he agreed to for the price agreed to and will remove the additional billing(s) in error. I will not threaten a "what if" he doesn't do it, but, if he doesn't agree I will file with the county Bar for binding arbitration to see where I stand financially and then use one of the quotes I have to do the work. If he makes a counteroffer to complete the work, I will probably go $3,500 more than what I've paid ($1,500 less than billed.) to get it done. Or, arbitration and consideration of next steps.

Thanks guys. Sometimes putting things out there to see how silly others find you helps focus you on the path forward.
 

quincy

Senior Member
Courtesy and firmness works. Unprofessional and not nice generally doesn't.

There was a thread on here several years ago about a billing dispute where the client took an unprofessional approach with his attorney and it did not work out so well for him. Search for the thread by Blueturnaround. It is an education in what not to do (plus it has appearances by now-banned members of this forum, illustrating what one shouldn't do on this forum as well :)).

Good luck, Whoops2u.
 

Whoops2u

Active Member
Please, people, I'll be as polite as a politician telling the people how lucky they are they voted him in. (Which, admittedly, is a lot less of a guide today.) Looking at the thread, that fellow /u/latigo would probably approve of the path I've chosen. I haven't seen his postings. Is he still around? /u/You are Guilty brought up a point about the costs amount. (In addition to the fee on fee for one meeting.) That should be in the IOLTA account. It might be enough and held long enough to have its own account although is probably in the group account. I've not received an accounting on that money at all. I wonder if his IOLTA will reconcile? http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Portals/0/documents/ethics/Publications/CTA-Handbook.pdf

I would argue with some of your points in that thread (like the right of a lawyer to charge his fee for stamping an envelope), but I'm not really that worried about what arbitration might bring at this point. It certainly can't put me in a worse position. I agree that thread was a good one. But, seriously, Coke over Pepsi?
 

Taxing Matters

Overtaxed Member
What would the tone of your letter be?
If your goal is to get the work done, the tone ought to be polite but firm in what you expect from the lawyer. After all, ticking off the lawyer by being rude or insulting isn't going to motivate him to do what you want done. And even if he were to agree to it, you may find that having the attorney approach it grudgingly isn't a whole lot better than what you have now.

If after trying that you can't reach agreement, then I'd suggest switching lawyers to get the work done and if necessary dispute the fees earned by the old attorney in arbitration through the bar. If you take the attorney to arbitration now while still expecting him to do the work, that's likely to be a mess. You are making the attorney your adversary in the fee dispute, and your adversary is going to be less inclined to do a great job for you (or do the remaining work at all).
 
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