“The states aren’t keeping track, and the feds aren’t keeping track,” said Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse. “We don’t know how much money is slipping through our hands.”
When one of the Drakuliches’ daughters questioned NMP’s fees, the firm charged her parents $975 for its response, records show. Family members say such billings left them afraid to confront the firm for fear it would be their loved ones who would pay.
And when the county’s watchdog told NMP to refund about $229,000 in billings in seven cases last year, the law firm challenged the order in a precedent-setting case that could land before Virginia’s Supreme Court. The firm also made what family members considered a galling demand: NMP wanted the seven wards it was accused of overbilling to pick up its $165,000 legal tab.
“My parents were people who worked and sacrificed to get where they were,” said Diane Drakulich-Clarke, one of the Drakuliches’ daughters. “NMP ran through their money like wildfire.”
In another Virginia case, a lawyer in Arlington County billed a mentally disabled ward $800 to throw him a party at Hooters and $725 to travel from Virginia to the District to pick up his birth certificate, among $19,000 in charges that a court ultimately ordered to be refunded. This year, a Falls Church lawyer was found guilty of embezzling $275,000 from an elderly couple for which she was serving as guardian.
Most guardianships are overseen by a maze of state and local agencies and courts, so how they are handled varies widely.
For many wards, attorneys make day-to-day decisions about care as guardian and manage their finances as conservator. In most of the Fairfax cases, NMP served both roles. Attorneys gain extraordinary power and responsibility over the elderly. In the eyes of the law, wards are reduced to a childlike status.
There are more than 8,400 guardianship cases in Virginia, according to the state Department of Social Services, but its unclear how many involve the elderly and incapacitated under the care of court-appointed attorneys.
Each Virginia county has a fiduciary watchdog, known as a commissioner of accounts, who approves or denies billings submitted by conservators. Guardians must submit annual reports on the welfare of their wards to the Department of Social Services.
Virginia has a schedule of fees for how much conservators should charge, but the law says only that guardians are entitled to “reasonable” compensation — a fuzzy term that some say leaves wards vulnerable to overbilling.