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Conservatorship of Heidi Anne Vizuete and In re the Marriage of Miriam Rose Vizuete vs. Edison Marcello Vizuete, (Unpublished Minn.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between the parties and the requirements for modification of appellant’s legal custody under chapter 518” (Vizuete I – Unpublished Mn.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.

First Comes Love. Then Comes Marriage? Maybe.

preapringforwedding1The Minnesota Court of Appeals issues a decision this week regarding whether an individual under guardianship in Minnesota has a right to marry.  The case, In the Matter of the Guardianship of Michael Timothy O’Brien, can be found here.

Michael O’Brian is a 27 year old man who is under guardianship because of a “serious and persistent mental disorder”, including diagnosis of bipolar disorder and severe ADHD.  His parents are his guardians, and have been since  2004.   Michael has been involved with a woman who is also in a special needs program since late 2010.  He and the woman want to marry.  Michael’s guardians believe he does not have the capacity to marry.  After an evidentiary hearing, the district court agreed and found that Michael did not have the capacity to marry.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision.  However, the Court of Appeals decision was not an outright victory for the ward, Michael O’Brien.  Instead, the case was remanded back to the District Court to take further testimony and make more detailed findings about whether Mr. O’Brien, in fact, has the capacity to marry. The Court of Appeals held that in order for an individual subject to a guardianship to marry, he must have the capacity to understand the meaning, rights and obligations of marriage.  The Court of Appeals further held that the burden of proof is on those opposing a ward’s competence to marry.

So what does all of this mean as a practical matter if someone under guardianship in Minnesota wants to get married?

  1. A person under guardianship in Minnesota retains the right to marry, if he has enough capacity to understand the meaning, rights and obligations of marriage.  However, the guardian would have to consent, since marriage is a contract and the ward’s contractual rights are typically restricted when a guardianship is imposed.
  2. If the ward wants to marry and the guardian believes that the ward does not have the capacity to understand the meaning, rights and obligations of marriage, the guardian must prove that the ward lacks that capacity.  A petition should be brought by the ward (who would have a right to an attorney in this situation) asserting his right to marry, or by the guardian opposing the request of the ward to marry.

Ward Can Be Committed AND Under Guardianship

court opinionThe Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision this week which confirms that an individual may be subject to commitment as a mentally ill person AND at the same time have a guardian.  The Court cited to the broad powers that can be given to a guardian, versus the relatively narrow scope of a committment treatment order.  For the full opinion (which focused on whether it was error for the district court not to restore the ward to capacity), see In the Matter of the Guardianship of Joy Bostrom, Minn. Ct. App. A13-0826.

Berge: Admission of Emergency Room Report Not Prejudicial Error

medical-report-iconThe Minnesota Court of Appeals released an unpublished opinion on February 18, 2014 in the case of In re: Guardianship and Conseservatorship of Wallace Berge, A13-0585.

Berge held that the admission of an emergency room report in a guardianship trial was not prejudicial error, where there was ample other evidence to support the Court’s ultimate conclusion that a limited guardian and conservator was necessary.  Although, as the Court noted, the District Court would not have been able to make Findings of Fact as to Berge’s condition at the hospital emergency room without admitting the emergency room report, the Court went on to note that the emergency room report simply corroborated the other testimony that it had admitted and found credible concerning Berge’s condition that entire night (confirming the observations of an officer and a child of Berge’s).

Also of note is the Court’s analysis of whether less restrictive means were possible, in lieu of a guardianship.  The court relied upon testimony that Berge would likely not accept outside caregiver services because he had in the past refused them and because he was frugal.