Frumeh Labow buzzes through the double doors of Los Angeles County’s main Probate Court, a queen bee in her hive.
She has several items to settle. She asks a judge for permission to sell the Beverly Hills home of a 66-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease, though he wants to keep it.
She asks the judge to order the release of financial records by the girlfriend of another aged client.
She asks the court to approve $25,140 in fees, to be paid from the bank account of a third elderly ward.
The judge gives her everything she wants.
“I’m happy,” she says, making her way back through the double doors. “I got paid today.”
Labow, 58, is among the most successful professional conservators in Southern California. She filed 158 cases between 1997 and 2003, 50% more than her closest competitor. Her firm, Complete Probate Administration Inc., controls $60 million of other people’s money.
After her court hearing, Labow hops into her baby-blue Jaguar and heads for the house of a new client, an octogenarian with dementia and a million-dollar estate.
Born in Chicago and named Frumeh to incorporate the Yiddish word for “pious,” Labow grew up in L.A.'s Cheviot Hills and went to UC Berkeley. She spent 13 years at the county agency that handles conservatorships for the incapacitated and the mentally ill, then followed a conga line of colleagues into the private sector.
In Complete Probate, Labow has built what one attorney called a “private fiduciary estate factory.”
She employs three full-time case managers. She has a controller, a paralegal and clerks who do everything from reconciling clients’ bank statements to planning their funerals.
She herself spends much of her time in court -- or, as she puts it, “schmoozing attorneys.”
Labow seldom takes on clients with less than $300,000 in liquid assets and acknowledges that Complete Probate does not operate on the cheap.
In 2002, Labow was appointed the conservator for 83-year-old Sophie Shamban, whose children and grandchildren were fighting over her multimillion-dollar estate. Labow hired a $500-an-hour litigator to represent her in the dispute.
“I could afford it,” she said, meaning that Shamban could.
Labow usually charges $105 an hour for her time, $95 an hour for her case managers and $65 an hour for administrative tasks such as bill paying.
Noting that paralegals make more than she does per hour, she often submits her fee requests attached to a five-page treatise titled “How Much Should a Conservator Be Paid.”
“There is no incentive for me to stay in business and continue to provide services if I do not make a profit,” it states. “I take on incredible liability and responsibility and I believe that I should be paid accordingly.”
Like many professional conservators, Labow demurs when asked her income. Court records show she has collected at least $3 million in fees from cases filed since 1997.
“There are some years when I make a ton of money and some years when I barely break even,” she said. She paused for a moment. “That happens less and less.”
Labow said she has remained a conservator for the challenge, not the money. She has run a variety of businesses for her wards, including fast-food franchises and an aircraft parts supply company. She has arranged exorcisms and outings to sex-toy shops.
She is part social worker, part decorator, part detective.
In a run-down Koreatown apartment, she rummaged through prescription bottles and scraps of paper with her case manager, Kathleen Hyatt. The absent tenant is a widower who has spent the last several months in a convalescent home.
Hyatt thought they could fix up the apartment enough for him to return.
The place is a dump, Labow retorted. Besides, the neighborhood is far from Complete Probate’s West Los Angeles office. “It’s more drive time for us,” she said.
Hyatt sorted through months of mail, searching for clues to cash, investments or property. “There’s a lot of money,” she called out to Labow, finding a bank statement showing more than $300,000 in one account.
Labow, cobwebs in her hair from digging through the mess, snatched the statement from Hyatt.
“Washington Mutual,” she said, sighing. “They’re so hard to work with.”
In the end, she decided to bring the widower back to the apartment.
Later, she reflected on her career. “Why do I do this?” she asked, turning the question over in her mind. “I get bored easily. The main reason I do this is I never get bored.”
Early on, Labow forged a reputation for tackling the kind of cases many professionals avoid, the ones that involve difficult clients, feuding families or protracted litigation.
In 1992, Labow stepped into the high-profile case of Martha Raye, the feisty former vaudeville star.
Raye had married a man 32 years her junior, and her daughter was trying to have her declared mentally incompetent. Labow negotiated a settlement that secured the daughter’s inheritance but allowed the husband to remain in Raye’s life.
Though ailing, Raye understood what it meant to have a conservator.
“I never thought anyone would rule over me,” she told Labow.
“And that’s what a conservatorship is,” Labow said, telling the story years later. “Ruling over someone.”
Labow doesn’t hesitate to take sides in family disputes or to fight back against those who challenge her authority.
Her combative approach has made her a hero to some, a conservator willing to stick her neck out for elders who have no one else to defend them.
“Frumeh is the very, very best, in my opinion,” said attorney Marc Hankin. “She is a very committed person.”
Her adversaries, however, say she’s a bully, and one with a blank check to litigate at her wards’ expense.
Half an hour after leaving the courthouse, Labow pulled into the driveway of a client’s house, a faded beauty in Los Feliz.
Labow called the Richard Neutra post-and-beam home her “greatest intellectual challenge.”
The owner, the widow of a prominent attorney, had been relocated to an assisted-living facility. She has since died. That day, Labow was pondering whether to sell the house or try to restore it. She brought friends to see the home, relishing the borrowed view.
The wealthy and famous visited the house in its heyday, she said. She showed off black-and-white photos taken decades ago.
Labow took one of the photographs with her as she left, the Jaguar purring down the hillside.