Confusion abounds with Vizuete (II) decision of Minnesota Court of Appeals

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On February 2, 2015, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision which should be of interest to both family law attorneys and guardianship/conservatorship law attorneys.  In re the Guardianship and/or Conservatorship of Heidi Anne Vizuete and In re the Marriage of Miriam Rose Vizuete vs. Edison Marcello Vizuete, (Unpublished Minn. Ct. App. A14-0474)   (“Vizuete (II)”) 

Although the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling in Vizuete (II), confusion abounds for guardianship/conservatorship law practitioners and courts in Minnesota in cases where an incapacitated “child” turns 18, both parents have some sort of custodial rights to the child (in their family law custody/divorce case) and  guardianship and/or conservatorship over the newly turned adult is sought by someone.

Facts of Vizuete (I): Mom and dad divorced, with divorce decree giving them joint legal custody of autistic child and giving mom sole physical custody, with dad having parenting time. Autistic daughter turns 18.  Mom files petition for guardianship.  Dad files petition for limited guardianship and conservatorship (not seeking full powers because he thought daughter could do some things on her own). Court appoints mom as sole, unlimited guardian and denies dad’s petition.  Dad appeals arguing guardianship order reduced his parental rights established under the custody order. Court of Appeals agrees and remands for district court to consider the “competing guardianship petitions in light of the custodial arrangement between the parties and the requirements for modification of appellant’s legal custody under chapter 518” (Vizuete I – Unpublished Mn. Ct. App. filed July 3, 2013, 2013 WL 3368334)

Facts of Vizuete (II):  Mom filed motion in family court file to modify her legal custody from joint legal to sole legal custody.  District court denies this motion, saying she has not presented prima facie case of significant change in circumstances that show endangerment to daughter’s physical or emotional well being.  Guardianship court issues new order, explaining that because there was not a basis to modify the parties’ current custody arrangement, it would evaluate their guardianship petitions in light of their respective custodial rights and under the best interest of the child standard.  Guardianship court appoints mom as guardian with unlimited powers and dad as guardian with limited powers “with respect to any major decisions affecting Heidi”.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that “the district court did not abuse its discretion by appointing a guardianship for Heidi that was in her best interest and that does not abrogate either party’s custodial rights under their preexisting and current arrangement.”

Takeaways from Vizuete (II):

  • Guardianship/conservatorship attorneys will need to ask their client for a copy of divorce/custody decree and carefully analyze the custodial rights granted to each parent therein.
  • In deciding guardianship matters involving incapacitated individuals who are turning 18, if there is a divorce decree or custody order involving that “child”, the district court in the guardianship action should  make inquiry into the underlying divorce decree and make specific findings and an order that takes into consideration the competing guardianship petitions of divorced parents in light of their respective custodial rights under their divorce decree and the modification standards applicable to their custodial arrangement  in their family law file.
  • Family law practitioners who are representing someone with an incapacitated, or potentially incapacitated, child, will want to be mindful of the “labels”, as well as the substantive rights, that are assigned to their client in divorce/custody situation.  A custody label may not just be a “label” when it comes to potentially incapacitated individuals, as it may now affect the outcome of guardianship proceedings that will occur after the child reaches the age of majority

More questions than answers are raised by this decision.  Does this decision mean that a court can no longer appoint a third party professional guardian in cases of “feuding parents”, because doing so would abrogate both feuding parents’ custodial rights?  Does the Court need to take the custodial arrangement in the divorce decree into account if only one parent files a petition, and the other parent doesn’t object?  Confusion abounds. We will need to wait and see how Vizuete (II) impacts guardianship actions of incapacitated adults when their parents disagree.

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