Peter Max, who now has dementia, made millions creating psychedelic art that for a time put him on par with Andy Warhol as a ‘60s cultural icon.
Sara Abbott, who has a form of autism, gets by on $1,200 a month from Social Security disability and lives with her mother in a small house in southern Indiana.
Both are entangled in guardianships that were supposed to serve as salves but are instead mired in turmoil.
The similarities in their cases, despite deeply disparate lives, reveal the emotional and financial risks enshrouding guardianships. As Max’s memory faltered and his finances fell into disarray, he purportedly consented to having neutral guardians oversee his multimillion-dollar estate to achieve peace among his feuding family members. Abbott’s mother initiated a guardianship after a counselor suggested it.
Together their guardianships, which both began in 2016, highlight a simple truth found in a six-month Bloomberg Law investigation: It doesn’t matter how much money people have or how carefully loved ones watch over them; guardianships can evolve into costly quagmires where tussles over fees and control deter from the case’s core mission.
In New York, Max’s guardians and their lawyers have billed millions amid the family’s legal squabbles, suits, and countersuits. As a federal judge recently put it, it’s a “toxic situation.”
In Indiana, Abbott is pushing to terminate her guardianship after a tense journey. Her former guardian billed 91% of her total income during one eight-month period while questioning the family’s spending on everything from fixing the roof to buying a used car.
Across the US, guardianships are regulated in hodgepodge fashion, with different rules from state to state and no national requirements on who can become a guardian or how much they can earn. Adults in the system are protected by a flimsy regulatory safety net.
In any courtroom case, judicial oversight is vital to ensure legal costs don’t spiral out of control, said Jerome “Joe” Studer, a Chicago attorney who specializes in legal fee issues.
Studer said he was taken aback by Bloomberg Law’s findings on the fees in the two cases, particularly by the Indiana case in which the guardian billed nearly Abbott’s entire income. “The ratio strikes me as outrageous,” said Studer, founder of Legal Fee Analytics.
Max: Ceaseless Conflict
“Yeah, I understand,” was all it took for Max, 85, to enter into a guardianship that has done nothing to resolve the family’s feuds.
“You understand?” Judge Laura Visitacion-Lewis asked at the January 2016 hearing. She noted he was shaking his head to indicate he didn’t have any questions. With that, Max became a “Person In Need of a Guardian,” or PING, in court parlance.
Max, now in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, wasn’t formally adjudged to be incapacitated at the hearing, a ruling that could have negatively impacted the value of his art.
At the time, he was still painting and making public appearances.
His court-appointed counsel, Elizabeth Adinolfi, said he understood he needed assistance, “particularly in managing his finances,” and thought “it would be beneficial for him to have a neutral third party fulfilling that role,” court transcripts show.
The references to neutrality were a nod to the acrimony among Max’s family members over money, his art, and the family company ALP, Inc. “He loves his children very much. He loves his wife very much. And he does not want there to be any reason for the three of them to be in conflict,” Adinolfi said.
They hoped a neutral guardian could help “achieve some level of peace.”
More than six years later, conflict and litigation envelop the guardianship.
And it is costing Max a fortune.
Abbott: In the Dark
For Sara Abbott, 27, and her mother Diana Abbott, the legal morass began after a well-intentioned suggestion.
In 2016, a counselor recommended Diana put her daughter in a guardianship. She called the lawyer who handled her husband’s estate, and he agreed it made sense.
Diana was skeptical at first. “I said, Why do I need guardianship? I’m her mother.” But with two professionals suggesting that path, she became her daughter’s guardian that August.
A former stocker at a Dollar General store, Diana said she received no formal training. “I signed a paper, they pushed it through, and that was it.”
She failed to file biennial reports for 2018 and 2020 documenting her daughter’s financial affairs and well-being. Diana didn’t know, she said, she was supposed to file them. Washington Circuit Court Judge Larry W. Medlock removed her in 2021, questioning her oversight as guardian. He appointed a local lawyer, Lisa Fleming, as interim guardian, tasking her with documenting Sara’s spending and assessing her needs.
Thus began a contentious legal saga in which the temporary guardian’s fees would outpace Sara’s income.
Max: Fees on Fees
Max had paid about $1.8 million to his court-appointed lawyer, guardians, and their attorneys by the end of 2020, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg Law.
And that isn’t the half of it. Outstanding requests, either pending or approved, add more than $2 million, plus, conservatively, hundreds of thousands of dollars in accruing unpaid legal fees.
The guardianship order, filed in December 2016, revoked Max’s powers of attorney and health-care proxies, giving control of his finances and care to three court-appointed fiduciaries: a property guardian, Lawrence Flynn; a personal needs guardian, now Barbara Lissner; and his court-appointed lawyer, Adinolfi.
Flynn, who declined an interview request, is Max’s third property guardian, and he had two personal needs guardians before Lissner entered the picture in 2019.
The professionals have generated millions in expenses, either for their own services or for those of lawyers hired to litigate on Max’s behalf – often against his children over ownership of his art.
One pending fee request from Lissner, the personal needs guardian, is for her usual legal rate of $550 an hour. If approved by the court, it would total $598,664 for 13 months.
Libra Max, Peter’s daughter, has challenged that as “grossly excessive.” Lissner’s lawyer said she was unable to comment; the guardian has defended her billing in court filings.
Lissner doesn’t provide legal services to Max. Instead, her responsibilities are to attend to his personal needs and safety. Her time records describe over 1,000 hours of activities sometimes more akin to the services of a social worker or house manager.
One three minute entry reads “Guardian emails PING’s son that she hopes he is feeling better.” At Lissner’s proposed rate, that’s $27.50. Another entry for six-minutes reads “Guardian emails PING’s son to ask him if he visited his father the previous day and if he was able to fix the Netflix issue.” That’s $55.
The records also show that much of her time was spent managing inquiries from Libra and the daughter’s lawyers. Another attorney, hired by Max’s property guardian in the legal fight over his art, bills $650 an hour.
Lissner said in court filings she has yet to be paid. She isn’t alone.
As of May 2021, Max’s guardianship account had a balance below $5, according to an affidavit Flynn filed. Flynn said he had been forced to use some of his own money to pay for some of Max’s expenses.
Despite Max’s substantial estate – comprising more than $15 million in principal when Flynn took over in 2017 and more than $16 million in income from ALP over the same period – Flynn said Max was unable to meet his financial obligations.
Of the more than $16 million in income, more than $7 million went to cover back taxes, and roughly $893,000 went to a mortgage and apartment renovations.
The remainder of Max’s income has been spent trying to maintain the life the renowned artist had grown accustomed to with his late wife. Flynn said he needs at least $2.5 million a year for Max’s expenses but is receiving only a fraction of that.
The presiding judge has made clear the professionals will be paid.
“My first priority is to make sure that Peter is cared for in the best way possible,” Judge Lisa A. Sokoloff said during an April 22, 2022, hearing. “My second priority is to make sure all the attorneys who worked on this case get paid. It is astonishing to me that there are over $2 million in attorneys’ fees owed.”
Abbott: Questions and Fees
After the guardian was appointed to examine her case, Sara Abbott’s legal fees skyrocketed.
The temporary guardian, Fleming, quickly raised red flags with the judge about Diana’s use of Sara’s $1,168 monthly income, which was derived from Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Social Security.
Eight days after Sara received one check with back pay in 2018, Fleming wrote, Diana bought a 2015 Ford Escape for $19,455, writing a check from her daughter’s account. “It is important to note that Sara does not drive, and the car is in Diana’s name only,” she wrote.
Fleming also noted in court filings that Diana put a new roof on their house, spending $4,500 from Sara’s account.
Fleming suggested the mother be held accountable for “depleting Sara’s funds.”
The accusation, mother and daughter say, is a fundamental misunderstanding of their situation: The money Diana spent was for her daughter’s benefit. Since Sara doesn’t drive, her mother provides all of her transportation. They have lived alone in the tidy family home in Salem since Sara’s father, Stephen, died in 2011.
“Sara says she was told the roof had to be replaced or she would lose her Homeowner’s Insurance,” wrote lawyer Amy Semones, representing Sara.
Said Sara: “How is that not for me? I need a roof over my head so I don’t get rained on.”
Fleming questioned other spending for electric, water and sewer, property taxes, and insurance.
“I believe there is a continued need for a guardian,” Fleming wrote the court on March 22, 2021. She said Sara needed help with medical, mental health, and social interaction needs and suggested Diana have “no access” to her daughter’s bank account.
Semones said their spending wasn’t frivolous. Sara “was consulted about and consented to all of the transactions” while her mom was guardian, the lawyer wrote.
And while Fleming was scrutinizing the roof and other spending, she was charging fees that resulted in half a day’s work totaling more than half of Sara’s monthly income.
On June 6, 2021, Fleming submitted an invoice for her guardian services for her first 3½ months. Her rate was $175 an hour. One bill was for $700 for 4 hours of work reviewing documents Diana provided her, which Fleming used to help form her March report.
In all, the total equated to more than $1,500 a month, more than Sara’s entire monthly income. A day after Fleming submitted her invoice, Judge Medlock approved it. Sara was on the hook for the bill.
The judge also questioned other spending and told Diana not to “spend money frivolously.” That September, the judge told Diana to reimburse Sara’s account $900 spent for Sara’s video games and another $600 on streaming services.
In all, Medlock ordered Diana to reimburse Sara’s account $11,720, including $3,000 for the roof and $6,485 for the car. He suggested she “consider the sale” of the family home.
Semones quickly pressed the judge about the close scrutiny of Sara’s spending that simultaneously threatened to deplete her account.
Semones called some of Fleming’s charges “unnecessary, duplicative and excessive,” particularly in light of Sara’s modest income. Fleming billed $175 for one hour spent copying records; Sara said she could make copies for 10 cents per page. “The invoice contains billable time for unnecessary travel in situations where a fax, phone call, email or internet search would suffice.”
In court papers, Fleming said her actions were “made in good faith on behalf of the protected person” and that she is “entitled to reasonable compensation.” After Semones questioned her fees, Fleming reanalyzed her bills – and increased the total by $52.50. The in-person meetings, she said, “were necessary.”
Fleming declined to discuss the case with Bloomberg Law. “I will not be talking with you about Sara Abbott,” she said.
All the while, the court denied Sara’s request for money for personal expenses. After Fleming took over, Diana, who had previously injured her back, said she was forced to return to work to “make ends meet.” Sara had to make written requests to the guardian for her bank statements and required permission to host a yard sale to raise money, wrote Semones, who was billing Abbott a reduced rate of $50 an hour while also seeking a nonprofit to represent her at no cost.
Max: Art and Lawsuits
Max was placed into a guardianship in part to prevent family infighting, but that original intention has been thwarted.
Generally speaking, “the more dysfunction in the family, the higher the costs of the guardianship,” said Katherine Pearson, a professor at Penn State Dickinson Law who specializes in policies related to aging. As disputes escalate, the legal costs spike.
Adinolfi, Max’s lawyer, said she couldn’t comment on the case. Speaking generally, she said guardianships can “be the best thing for a family” when they’re not contested. But when family dynamics are volatile, “it can drive a guardian’s time through the roof.”
Max founded ALP Inc., named for his children, Adam and Libra, and himself, in 2000. His children hold equal 40% shares. Max owns the remaining 20%, now controlled by Flynn, the property guardian.
In December 2019, Flynn’s lawyer sought to recover “all artworks produced by Peter,” along with the remainder of his “valuable intellectual property.”
Flynn asserts that Max never intended for ALP – and in effect his children – to control all of his work while he was alive.
He claims Max had been suffering from dementia for two years, according to one of his doctors, when he supposedly transferred his intellectual property rights to ALP. In effect, Flynn is arguing that Max didn’t have the capacity in 2014 to transfer his intellectual property, even though he possessed the capacity in 2016 to enter into a guardianship.
Flynn has also said he has no choice but to aggressively pursue Max’s claim over the art, alleging that Libra began intentionally starving the guardianship in 2019 amid her legal wars with her father’s guardians.
Libra has authority to determine her father’s ALP income, and in court filings, has said she reduced his salary to $800,000 because the company has less cash on hand than normal.
Initially siding with Libra, Flynn voted to oust her brother Adam as president of ALP in late 2018 but by March 2020, Flynn had changed his mind. He accused Libra of misconduct and agreed to reinstate Adam as president, provided Adam agree not to contest the claim to his father’s art – or to oppose the guardians’ fee requests.
Adam’s attorney blamed Libra for much of the case’s chaos. “The plain reason that this matter appears to have spiraled out of control and incurred large requests for compensation by fiduciaries is directly correlated to the litigation that was instigated by Libra Max,” wrote Matthew S. Seidner.
Libra’s lawyer counters that the fees are the consequence of Max being “ripped from his family and loved ones at the end of his life.”
“Simply stated, if Peter was being cared for by his family, as is his wish, there would be no legal fees,” Clifford Meirowitz said. It “strains credulity,” he added, that he wanted “his life run by strangers.”
Libra has been seeking unsuccessfully since 2019 to have Lissner removed as her father’s personal needs guardian.
Their discord escalated in December 2021, when Lissner sued Libra for defamation in state court following an interview Libra gave on Fox 5 New York two months earlier criticizing the guardian.
So now, the court-appointed official watching over Max is formally at legal odds with his daughter.
Libra can see her father, but only when Lissner agrees, and is generally prohibited from accessing his medical information or speaking with his physicians.
And it has all been approved by the court. Adam has said he has no problems seeing his father and, in court filings, has supported Lissner’s care.
In April 2022, Sokoloff – the fifth judge to preside over Max’s case – told Lissner and Libra to be civil, or communicate through lawyers. “I don’t want to be called to find out that Libra isn’t leaving, because I will come over with the police, and you don’t want that.”
About a week later the judge visited Max. She described his apartment as past its prime and said it’s “really unfortunate that such a formerly wealthy person is living like this.”
“He talked to me a little bit,” the judge said. “He was drawing and painting with markers.”
Abbott: Seeking a Way Out
As she found herself deeper in the system, Abbott said she felt invisible.
“I was being treated like I was insignificant,” she said from her hometown 100 miles south of Indianapolis. “I have a big motivation to get out of this guardianship. If I don’t, I’m going to lose my mom, my house, my life.”
Her friction with the guardian was clear to Medlock, who “observed in Court the behavior of the ward and her mother towards Ms. Fleming to be disrespectful.” But on this, too, there are two sides to the story.
Abbott is a detail-oriented woman who keeps careful track of her schedule. After the judge appointed Fleming as her guardian, she took to taking notes during their meetings.
“She has not once listened to a word I have said,” she wrote of their first session in 2021.
“Fleming claims that her goal is to ‘help me save money and be frugal’ despite the fact that she is/will be charging me for not only these weekly meetings but also any interactions with her,” she wrote. “The fees for these meetings will more than likely deplete my account.”
As they continued to meet, Abbott said Fleming objected to her taking notes. “Fleming asked me to put binder down. I told her I am more comfortable with it out,” she wrote of their second meeting. “It is hypocritical of her to complain of me taking notes for my own records if she does the same.”
Abbott is now also working with Justin Schrock, an attorney with Indiana Disability Rights representing her at no cost in her bid to end the guardianship.
Schrock formally challenged Fleming’s bills. By October 2021, Fleming had billed $8,915.85 for eight months – or $1,114 a month, 91% of Abbott’s total income, then at $1,225.
As Abbott awaits her day in court, her case has undergone major change. Last March, Fleming was replaced as guardian by Loren Pilcher, chief operations officer of a behavioral therapy company called Sweet Behavior, who supports Sara ending the guardianship.
In June, Judge Medlock recused himself from the case, citing its “conflict and animosity” in an interview. Medlock said he had concerns about some of the “suspect transfers,” prompting him to appoint Fleming. “I was asking for a different set of eyes,” he said.
Asked about the family’s view that the spending benefited Sara, Medlock acknowledged some second thoughts. “Yes, honestly, when I do look back at it I think they do have something of a point.” But he said the costs should have been split between mother and daughter. Medlock agrees Indiana guardians “absolutely” don’t get enough training.
He said Fleming “did a lot of work and gave me significant insights into how the funds were spent,” but admitted her bills “were extensive” and “some of the meetings with Sara weren’t necessary.”
Bloomberg Law asked legal professionals to analyze topics including the role guardianship plays in states and what reforms would serve vulnerable populations.
In the end, Fleming waived about half of her $12,000 final bill and Abbott paid $2,600, Schrock said. The judge got the county to pay the balance.
“I thought it best to recuse,” Medlock said. “I wanted to be fair to everybody. I wasn’t sure I could be.”
He said he’s not convinced Abbott is ready to terminate the guardianship and felt it better for another judge to resolve that question. “I had strong opinions about it.”
If the new judge frees her from the guardianship, Abbott said, “I might faint on the spot.”
Along the way, Diana has witnessed a more confident daughter emerge. “Sara has gotten her voice through all this,” she said.
Sara said she is ready to use that voice.
“Fight back,” she said. “Prove you’re functional. Don’t let people treat you like you’re lesser because you’re different.”
To contact the reporters on this story:
To contact the editors responsible for this story: