June 23, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Guardian Who Diverted Assets for his Own Family Subject to Treble Damages

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People in Interest of Black on Thursday, January 25, 2018.

Probate—Disability—Conservator—Fiduciary Duty—Conflict of Interest—Jurisdiction—Civil Theft.

Black is the former conservator for his mentally-ill sister, Joanne. When he filed his petition to be appointed conservator, he did not tell the probate court that he sought the appointment to disclaim Joanne’s interest in payable-on-death (POD) assets so that they could be redistributed in accordance with his and his children’s expectations of his mother’s estate plan. Nor did he disclose this conflict of interest when he requested authorization to disclaim Joanne’s assets. Black later admitted this conflict. The probate court found that Black breached his fiduciary duties and committed civil theft by converting his sister’s assets for his own benefit. Specifically, the court concluded that Black failed to adequately disclose his intent to use a disclaimer to divest his sister of one-third of the (POD) assets, and therefore did not have the court’s authorization to redirect the assets. The court determined that his actions were undertaken in bad faith and satisfied the elements of civil theft. Based on its findings, the court surcharged Black in the amount of the converted funds and then trebled those damages under the civil theft statute.

On appeal, Black first argued that the probate court lacked jurisdiction to enter the hearing order because only a C.R.C.P. 60(b) motion, and not a motion to void the disclaimer, could undo the court’s order authorizing the disclaimer. However, the motion to void the disclaimer did not seek relief from a final order. Instead, the motion alleged that Black had breached his fiduciary duties to Joanne while acting as conservator, and it sought to unwind a transaction based on this breach. Thus, the probate court’s jurisdiction was based on the court’s authority to monitor fiduciaries over whom it has obtained jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court had jurisdiction to adjudicate the allegations and issues raised by the motion to void the disclaimer. Additionally, Black had sufficient notice of the proceedings.

Black next argued that he could not have breached his fiduciary duty to Joanne because his conversion of one-third of her POD assets was disclosed to and approved by the probate court in accordance with C.R.S. § 15-14-423. C.R.S. § 15-14-423 allows a fiduciary to engage in a conflicted transaction only when the fiduciary has disclosed the conflict of interest and demonstrated that the conflicted transaction is nonetheless reasonable and fair to the protected person. Black received authority to transfer the POD funds to a Supplemental Needs Trust (SNT) for Joanne’s benefit. Instead, he redistributed the POD funds two-thirds to the SNT and one-third to the Issue Trust, which benefited himself and his children. Because Black did not disclose the conflict of interest or demonstrate that this proposed redistribution was reasonable or fair, he did not have safe harbor under the statute. Thus, the probate court did not err in finding that Black breached his fiduciary duties.

Next, Black contended that the probate court erred in finding him liable for civil theft, arguing that the probate court lacked jurisdiction over the claim; the claim was time-barred; and that, in any event, the evidence was insufficient to establish civil theft. The civil theft claim is coterminous with the breach of fiduciary duty claim and thus directly related to Black’s duties as conservator. The probate court had jurisdiction over the civil theft claim, of which Black had notice. The record amply supports that the civil theft claim was timely asserted. As to the sufficiency of the evidence, Black did not dispute that he obtained control over Joanne’s assets with the intent to permanently deprive her of them; he disputed only the probate court’s finding of deception. The record supports the probate court’s finding that Black made misrepresentations or misleading statements or that he concealed material facts. When a conservator allegedly commits theft from a protected person by deception on the probate court, reliance is established if that court relied on the misrepresentation in authorizing the theft. Here, the court relied on Black’s misrepresentations in authorizing the disclaimer, and it would not have authorized the transaction had it known the true facts. The evidence was sufficient to support the finding that Black committed civil theft.

Black also contended that reversal is required because the probate court committed a series of errors that made the evidentiary hearing unfair. The court of appeals was unpersuaded by these arguments.

Lastly, Black contended that the court erred in concluding that he lacked authority to create a separate trust for Joanne’s workers’ compensation and Social Security disability benefits. The court discerned no error.

Joanne cross-appealed, contending that the court erred by failing to make explicit findings denying her request to void the disclaimer. The court did not abuse its discretion in imposing a surcharge rather than ordering that the disclaimer transaction be unwound.

The order was affirmed and the case was remanded for determination of reasonable appellate attorney fees.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.