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Michigan’s probate judges and lawyers who handle the assets of the young and old have come under fire from the state Supreme Court after a recent audit revealed alleged widespread abuse by conservators. The audit so irked the state high court that it has ordered an investigation of all probate courts and has threatened to disbar lawyers and remove judges if crimes are found. The state audit, released last week, found that conservators appointed by probate judges in five counties engaged in self-dealings, borrowed money with interest-free loans and bought items like TVs and furniture for themselves and didn’t keep track of how money was spent. In one county, for instance, of 114 cases examined, nearly half had significant accounting deficiencies. The audit-reviewing 280 cases in five counties between 1988 and 2001-also alleged that courts lack sufficient oversight of conservators. Touching a nerve Probate judges countered that parts of the audit are inaccurate, and that it relays the false impression that all probate courts have problems. The audit did not say how many allegations involved lawyers, who make up 25% of conservators in Michigan. The rest are relatives. “This study just touched a nerve with lots of us who do this because it really painted a picture of what I don’t think is true of the majority of people who do this for a living,” said Howard Linden, a Southfield, Mich., solo practitioner and founder of the Wayne County Probate Bar Association. “I just don’t agree with the conclusions that there’s wholesale abuse by lawyers [who are conservators],” he said. “[M]y guess is, if you look at the totality of these cases, the ones that are abusive mostly will be family members.” Supreme Court spokeswoman Marcia McBrien said that lawyers’ actions need to be scrutinized. “The fact is that close to a quarter of conservators are attorneys or professionals, people in a position who should know better,” she said. “And that’s certainly a cause for concern. We’re certainly going to look hard at it.” Robert Edick, a deputy administrator for the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, said lawyers mishandling probate cases is a recurring problem in Michigan. The most recent statistics kept by the grievance commission show that of the 3,500 grievances filed in 2002 against lawyers, 250 involved probate matters, which ranks third on the list of complaints against attorneys. A total of nine lawyers have been disbarred since 1995 over financial matters involving conservatorship cases, according to the Michigan Supreme Court. The audit has both stunned and angered probate judges throughout the state. Chippewa County Probate Judge Lowell Ulrich, president of the Michigan Probate Judges Association, said many judges “strongly disagree” with the conclusions of the audit. “To have made such a broad sweeping charge that all courts are doing such a horrible job and that all conservators are doing a terrible job-that’s simply not true,” Ulrich said. “To make this broad sweeping brush and condemn us is offensive.” Ulrich said there are checks and balances in place to assure that abuse is prevented, and corrected when caught. Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Milton Mack Jr., whose court was named in the audit, said his office found several mistakes in the audit. Mack said auditors looked at more than 100 files in his court. Of those, he said, 23 were found to have problems. He said his office reviewed those claims, and found that all 23 cases had either been corrected or never had problems to begin with. “There were critical, factual errors in their findings,” Mack said. “We feel like we’re on top of this, but at the same time we recognize that the Supreme Court has legitimate concerns over this issue and we are going to respond in an appropriate way.” Baldas’ e-mail is [email protected].

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