A court’s award of fees and costs is subject to a review under an abuse of discretion standard. This standard of review applies to fees awarded to a Florida guardian, and in cases where the fees awarded are reduced to a lesser amount than the fees requested. In Pierre v. Guardianship of Brown, Case No. 3D13-1503 (Fla. 3d DCA July 8, 2015), the Third District held that the trial court’s award of fees and costs, which significantly reduced the award sought by the ward’s successor guardian and trustee, was not an abuse of discretion.
In Pierre, the ward was declared incapacitated in 2006 and was initially a ward of the Guardianship Program of Dade County. An initial guardian and trustee of the ward secured assets for the ward which resulted in a deposit of $150,000 into a trust for the ward. Real property was accumulated and let out to provide the ward rental income. Later, in 2009, the initial guardian was awarded $100,000 in fees.
The following year appellant was substituted as trustee of the ward’s assets. The opinion provides that the appellant did not obtain control over the estate until 2011. Around this time, the initial guardian filed an additional petition for fees and was subsequently awarded $105,250.93 in fees and $1,800 in expert witness fees. It was later ascertained by the successor guardian that the estate was deficient in tax filings. In short, the two fee awards to the initial guardian constituted all of the liquid assets collected on behalf of the ward. All that remained in the ward’s estate was between $40,000 and $75,000 in cash and the home from which the ward collected his rental income.
Following his substitution as successor guardian of the ward’s person and property, the appellant sought fees and costs incurred in his capacity as guardian and trustee. The trial court reduced significantly the amount of fees sought by the guardian so that the fee award was much less than the amount requested. Even though the successor guardian and trustee was in no way responsible for the diminished status of the estate the ruling was affirmed on appeal by the Third District.
This decision serves as another reminder that the appellate courts give great deference to decisions of the lower courts in trust and guardianship matters. When fees are sought by the guardian and trustee the appellate courts are loathe to reverse such a finding and order absent an abuse of discretion. Therefore, if a Florida guardianship court reduces the fees awarded to the guardian to an amount much less than expected, an appeal is difficult to win under the abuse of discretion standard.