Attorney Must File Creditor’s Claim to Recover Fees from Deceased Client

A California appeals court rules that an attorney who successfully represented a couple in a lawsuit against their son for elder abuse, but the couple died before the court reached a final decision, cannot petition the court to recover fees and must file a creditor’s claim instead. Belcher v. Bakkers (Cal. Ct. App., 4th Div., 3rd Dist., No. G058893, April 5, 2020).

Paul and Joan Bakkers hired attorney John Belcher to sue their son for elder abuse, claiming he stole property from them. The Bakkers signed a contingency fee agreement with Mr. Belcher that provided Mr. Belcher would receive 40 percent of any recovery. Joan Bakkers died before the case was initially decided, and Paul Bakkers died while the final decision in the appeal was pending. The court eventually ruled in favor of the Bakkers. 

At the conclusion of the case, Mr. Belcher filed a petition for fees with the court. The court ruled that because Mr. Bakkers had died before the decision was issued, Mr. Belcher had to file a creditor’s claim in order to recover his fees. Mr. Belcher appealed, arguing that he did not have to file a creditor’s claim because of his status as a lienholder. 

The California Court of Appeals affirms, holding Mr. Belcher cannot petition the court for payment of fees from a deceased client. The court holds that even though the contingency fee agreement created a “charging lien,” the lien was not automatically enforceable because Mr. Belcher “was unable to file a separate, independent action to establish the amount and enforceability of the lien before [Mr. Bakkers] died.” According to the court, Mr. Belcher’s “only option is to file a creditor’s claim because establishing a viable lien requires resolution of the decedent’s personal liability.” 

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