Minnesota Probate Attorneys Fees, Burden of Proof

by Flanders Law Firm LLC on March 20, 2012

In an interesting case out of Minnesota, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court order denying an attorney’s submission of his total attorney fees in a high conflict probate proceeding.

In the case of In re Estate of Mary Ann Reiman, A11-203 (Minn.App. 01/03/12)(unpublished), the appeals court was faced with an appeal by an attorney whose total fees were reduced significantly by the trial court.  In the case, the attorney was retained to administer the estate of one Mary Reiman whose total estate was worth approximately $113,000. 

The daughter of the decedent objected to the appointment of the personal representative chosen by the decedent and to informal administration of the estate.  After a contested hearing was conducted where the daughter made largely unsupported claims of undue influence and missing property, the court denied the motion for removal of the personal representative and converted the estate administration to a formal proceeding.

According to the estate’s attorney, the daughter was not cooperative throughout the probate process.  The lawyer, a sole practitioner, was faced with “persistent inquiries” and the daughter made “multitudinous” objections to every detail of the personal representative’s administration of the estate.  As a Minneapolis probate lawyer, I know exactly how this kind of case can go.

The lawyer ended up submitting an accounting, seeking attorney fees of $16,043 in current fees, and $2,000 in estimated future fees.  Denying the full accounting, the trial court reduced the fee award to $10,689.

The court of appeals, to a large extent, agreed with the trial court order.  Trial court, after all, have broad discretion in approving or denying attorney fee awards.  However, the appeals court did make an adjustment in the total fee award.  The appeals court found that:  (1) a calculation error was made by the trial court which resulted in an improper $800 adjustment; (2) the trial court made an improper dissallowance of trial preparation time in the amount of $2,900; (3) an improper adjustment was made by the trial court for dissalowing the attorney’s time gathering and resubmitting records “apparently lost” by the trial court.

In a finding I particularly appreciated, the court stated that there is a common “expectation that there are at least two hours of preparation time for each our of trial.”  I’d never heard that reasoning and I can tell you that I like it.   Trial work is tough to prepare for – especially for a sole practitioner.

In conclusion, I agree that courts should have discretion when approving or denying attorney fee requests.  However, it can be difficult to practice law when you are constantly second-guessed about the quality and nature of your work product while, simultaneously, still being questioned about the amount of time that something “should or should not have” taken.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ticket clinic August 6, 2013 at 6:22 pm

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MATTHEW April 18, 2017 at 5:46 pm

We are a small firm facing a similar issue to the Reiman case – a sibling to the PR has filed numerous objections, most wholly baseless, to a Final Account and the court has scheduled a trial – the objections that are at least relevant relate to PR and attorney fee amounts. We are trying to reach a settlement but prospects are bleak. We haven’t encountered a trial on a Final Account before – can you recommend any articles or guidance on how the trial proceeds and any tips (i.e., in case in chief, do we address the objections head on, including billing records and time sheet introduction, or do we present the petition as in the initial hearing, and respond/rebut only after the objector presents his case)?

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