Case Caption: In re Guardianship of Lillian R. SmithCase Number: S. Ct. Civ. No. 2012-0120Date: 05/23/2013Author: Hodge, Rhys S. Citation: Summary:

In considering an attorney's appeal from an order of the Superior Court denying her request for attorney's fees and costs arising out of her representation of a client, now deceased, in contested guardianship proceedings, the Superior Court erred in categorically denying the attorney's request on the ground that the client had been declared incompetent prior to the date that the attorney was hired to represent the client in the guardianship proceedings. Former Title 15, Section 844 of the Virgin Islands Code governs the attorney's request, and this statute established an exception to the common law of contracts rendering the client's competency to enter into a contract to hire the attorney. This statute also authorized attorney's fee awards (1) on appeal from an order establishing a guardianship, and (2) in proceedings to revoke a guardianship, without regard to whether the proceeding results in the guardianship being terminated. The Superior Court's interpretation of this statute was inconsistent with the Legislature's clear intent to encourage putative wards to obtain retained counsel to defend against petitions seeking to declare them incompetent, in that imposing an additional requirement that the ward possess the legal capacity to enter into a contract with retained counsel would make it exceedingly difficult for individuals served with guardianship petitions, or those attempting to terminate an existing guardianship, to obtain retained counsel. However, the statute required expenses charged to the ward's estate to be reasonable, and a court should not merely "rubber stamp" a request for fees and costs, but must play an active role in determining if claimed expenditures were reasonably necessary to safeguard the ward's legal right to defend against an initial guardianship petition and to attempt to terminate the guardianship, whether before the Superior Court or on appeal to this Court. Therefore, although the attorney in this case is entitled to collect reasonable fees and costs from the client's estate, the Superior Court is directed, on remand, to conduct a reasonableness analysis in the first instance. The Superior Court's October 10, 2012 Order is reversed and the matter is remanded for further proceedings.

Attachment: Open Document or Opinion