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Probate court

I’m not really sure what to say about the Chron’s rather harrowing series on how messed up the Harris County Probate Court system can be, other than I sure am glad we’ve done estate planning, and I sure as hell hope it never amounts to more than a formality. Couple of excerpts, just to give you a taste if you skipped past them. From Monday:

Perry ”Bit” Whatley, 84, a former Baytown refinery worker and lifelong Texan, spent his final days in self-imposed exile, a fugitive from a more than two-year-old fight with the state probate courts.

Whatley was living in Arizona when he died, but it was not where he wanted to be, away from his home, cut off from his family and his $2 million fortune.


Soon after the filing of the guardianship case, the Whatleys withdrew $500,000 from an annuity, incurring an early withdrawal penalty. They gave most of the money to their own newly hired attorneys to fight the guardianship. Those attorneys now say the costs for the fight have grown to nearly $1 million.

In Harris County Probate Court, [Judge Mike] Wood, who also claimed he was trying to protect Whatley as a disabled Harris County resident, eventually authorized payments of $360,000 from Whatley’s money to four lawyers, three he appointed and one hired on behalf of Whatley’s niece. They have not yet provided final accounting of how much of Whatley’s money was spent.

The judge openly attacked opposing attorneys as unorthodox renegades who abused the system and instigated Whatley’s disappearance. In one court appearance last summer, he said he might have to order Whatley into court “in chains” and that it would be the fault of Whatley’s legal team.

However, Whatley’s hired attorneys remain adamant in their claims that Wood prejudged their client — without ever meeting Perry Whatley — and demonstrated his bias in a series of comments and rulings that threatened Whatley’s savings, his independence and his marriage.

[Whatley’s niece Jeannie] Anderson has another view. She believes those hired attorneys ”raped my uncle of his estate.”


Whatley’s attorneys decided to personally sue the judge, his appointees and others in an attempt to freeze spending of Whatley’s assets. The lawsuit accused the judge and others of fraud, conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duties and asked for $15 million in damages.

Wood has called the suit frivolous and insisted he should be granted judicial immunity.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of attorneys suing a judge like that. I can’t imagine the suit will be allowed to proceed, but it still says something to me. How screwed up do things have to be for something like that to happen?

From Sunday:

Some of the fattest fees generated by any recent Texas probate case went to the accounting firm of Paula Miller, a former court favorite who is not a lawyer, a certified public accountant or a banker.

Miller, an accountant with two master’s degrees, did serve for a while, though, as Probate Judge Russell Austin’s campaign treasurer — something the family of River Oaks widow Doris Conte initially did not know.

Her family trusts eventually paid Miller and her company $1.38 million. Austin ordered more than $780,000 in additional payments to people assigned to work with her, according to court and family records.


In 1998, Austin personally introduced Miller to Doris Conte’s feuding children, Susan and Joe Conte Jr. The two at first agreed to allow Austin to appoint Miller to review accounting in their family trusts.

Initially, Miller charged the Contes more than $30,000 a month for what was supposed to be a temporary job. She later got the judge to approve hiring five law firms and a CPA, who got paid separately to help.

Within seven years after her 1998 appointment, Miller had generated more than $1 million for her own firm. When the Contes’ cash ran low, Miller got more by selling properties and cutting lease deals, sometimes over family objections.

In an interview, Miller claimed her fees were similar to those a bank might charge for a complex trust case. “We did a tremendous amount of work,” she said.

However, when Miller prepared to leave the trusts in 2003, she collected estimates from banks who competed to replace her. Those documents show that their proposed fees were lower than her own.

Miller’s work at first included redoing five years of financial records, funding the trusts, overseeing accounting and monitoring several lawsuits. But she also frequently billed at $225 an hour for tasks such as buying a lawn tractor and arranging for household repairs.

From 2003 to 2005, her last three years on the case, she earned nearly $400,000 from the Conte trusts, the second-largest reported payout to any appointee in a probate case in the state of Texas, based on a Houston Chronicle analysis of fees paid in probate cases over a three-year period.


In 2001, Miller became Austin’s campaign treasurer.

Miller also was among Austin’s $5,000 campaign contributors. Others who worked on the Conte case gave Austin money, too, including an appraiser, a CPA, lawyers and the doctor who had examined Conte and recommended she be declared unable to manage her own affairs. Such contributions are legal and subject to Texas disclosure laws, though critics claim they may present an appearance of impropriety.

Texas judicial rules generally do not require judges to disclose campaign-related relationships in court. However, Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics, said it might have been prudent in this case for Austin to tell the Contes that Miller was serving as his treasurer.

Austin said he felt it was unnecessary because it was a matter of public record. He said Miller did not help him raise money, though her name appeared on fundraising letters.

In 2005, the Contes discovered Miller’s role as Austin’s treasurer in an Web search of Harris County records. They were furious.

That same year, Miller had requested authorization from Austin to put all the Conte properties on the market, including their home. After the Contes objected, Miller, who had previously talked about resigning, stepped down from their case. She also stopped serving as Austin’s treasurer.

But before her work ended, Austin signed one more document in Miller’s favor. This one could protect her from the Contes.

“For purposes of any future claims of liability the effect of judicial discharge shall be as though Paula Miller never served … No person or entity shall have any cause of actions against Paula Miller or any of her actions or inactions … ,” the order said.

“Might have been prudent in this case for Austin to tell the Contes that Miller was serving as his treasurer”. Yeah. Or maybe for her to stay out of his campaign, what with the appearance of impropriety supposedly meaning something.

Anyway. They’re good reads, and they shed some light on a part of the judicial system that I at least knew nothing about. Check them out.

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