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Excessive Legal Fees for Utah’s Polygamous Trust

The United Effort Plan is a trust dealing largely with property ownership in Colorado City and Hilldale, Utah, two cities settled almost exclusively by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a group that has received increasingly controversial media attention for its activities in underage weddings and other measures of community control. Formerly owned by the FLDS church, the UEP trust was seized by the state of Utah in 2005, and now is racking up almost $1 million a year in legal fees from law firms in Utah, and some stakeholders are wondering whether the attorney fees aren’t excessive.

Utah’s attorney general’s “filing says UEP attorneys have billed for $8 million since the state seized the trust,” and the contention around that amount of money is only growing. But why are the fees from the law firms in Utah serving the UEP so high? Partly because former members of the FLDS church are suing the UEP for anything from civil rights claims to suits dealing directly with the property controlled by the UEP in southern Utah. Apparently, there is “a $100-a-month occupancy fee required to live in a UEP home,” and evictions for residents who have refused to pay are clogging up the courts in places like St. George, and racking up the bills for the UEP.

But for many of those residents, the evictions are awkward, since quite a few of those being booted from their homes “are still trying to be in the church,” and finding themselves, quite literally, on the street. Jerold Williams, who used to be an FLDS bishop, told the Salt Lake Tribune that FLDS members who follow Warren Jeffs, the community leader, are forbidden to pay the occupancy fees, resulting in their evictions from the properties. For the general public, it can be difficult to untangle the lines of command and power struggles here, but for attorneys working with law firms in Utah with keen insight of the legal entanglements may be the most interesting part of the story.

Basically, you have the FLDS community adhering to the spiritual leadership of Jeffs, who is attempting to buck the control of the state of Utah’s power since it seized the UEP, through some level of fiscal disobedience—not paying the $100-a-month occupancy fees. But then, the UEP gets to evict the dissenters, and the lawsuits and property disputes filed by the evictees “threaten to take assets from the trust,” in which the bulk of the FLDS’ funds are tied up.

Law firms in Utah disagree about whether the attorneys’ fees incurred by the UEP’s administration are fair or not—the UEP certainly is facing a significant amount of litigation across several courts: party to 35 different lawsuits at one point. And the UEP has filed its own lawsuits too, involving water and property rights in southern Utah. But no one is stepping up to “scrutinize and contest any excessive fees” in the court-administered trust, which creates a different situation than you’d see with a private client.

Regardless of the outcome of the multi-million dollar lawsuit pending in the court system now for the child-bride case involving Jeffs and the FLDS UEP trust, all these legal fees and fiscal dissenting might just see the trust implode in the meantime.

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Michael R. Anderson, JD

Ascent Law LLC
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506