A dispute between the couple’s children led the courts to decide that the Drakuliches needed a third-party caretaker. A judge appointed a law firm, which is common in Virginia when the elderly and incapacitated have no one else.
Now the Drakuliches and the law firm are fighting over tens of thousands of dollars in billings in a conflict that likely will be decided by the state Supreme Court.
It has raised questions among elder-care advocates and legislators about how a small number of paid guardians — both lawyers and non-lawyer professionals — are treating the aging and how states oversee the process. The questions come just as a host of baby-boomer retirees are expected to make such arrangements more common. Between 2009 and 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the elderly population will increase by 60 percent to 64 million.
“We need to look at ways to strengthen the oversight system for guardians,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn). “While most court-appointed guardians are undoubtedly professional, caring and law-abiding, we have seen mounting evidence that some guardians use their position of power for their own gain.”
In the McLean case, Needham, Mitnick and Pollack (NMP) took control of the Drakuliches’ lives and $700,000 nest egg, as it had done in six similar cases in Fairfax County. It charged wards up to $125 an hour — its normal professional rates — for personal services, such as renewing dog licenses, sorting boxes and preparing instructions on emptying a dryer’s lint trap, court records show.
NMP billed the Drakuliches $6,300 to prepare $1,800 worth of household items for auction, another ward $2,300 to sell a $4,000 car and a third person in their care $4,200 to recover $5,300 worth of investments, a court investigator found.
The Drakulich family calls the bills exorbitant; NMP says they are normal legal bills. The firm says it and other firms can’t afford to become guardians unless they are allowed to charge their regular rates.
Virginia has no cap on fees attorneys can charge for guardianship work or even basic guidelines about how much they should be compensated. Unlike cosmetologists or dental assistants, professional guardians do not have to meet training requirements or be certified in the state.
There is no single system available to the public to track court judgments and complaints against such guardians. And once an attorney is appointed in private cases, such as the Drakuliches’, the state does not make in-person welfare checks on the ward unless a complaint is lodged — unlike in a handful of other states.
Government investigators, academics and advocates for the elderly have recommended that states make reforms in all of these areas, but Virginia is hardly alone in not implementing them. A series of reports found that states have made progress in increasing rules and oversight of guardians, but most have major holes as they face a demographic wave Klobuchar calls the “silver tsunami.”