Massachusetts High Court Limits Wards’ Right to Counsel

JULY 28, 2003 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 4

Is one who has been determined legally incapacitated and in need of a guardian able to revisit the court’s determination or challenge her guardian’s actions? Yes, wards may request the restoration of capacity and/or challenge the fitness of the guardian. In at least one state, however, wards are not entitled to legal representation unless a proceeding has been brought to terminate a guardianship or remove a guardian. Guardianship of Lon Hocker, July 10, 2003.

In August 1999, Priscilla Claman petitioned the Barnstable Division of the Family and Probate Court to be appointed permanent guardian of her 88 year-old father, Lon Hocker, Jr., who contested the need for a guardian. The court appointed attorney Kathy Pett Ryman to represent Mr. Hocker. After a trial the court found that Mr. Hocker suffered from multi-infarct dementia and was unable to care for himself by reason of mental illness. Ms. Claman was appointed to serve as guardian. The court admonished family members not to interfere with the guardian’s ability to implement a treatment plan for Mr. Hocker.

Over a year later the court vacated Ms. Ryman’s appointment as Mr. Hocker’s attorney. The next day, Ms. Ryman entered a notice of appearance on his behalf with no other pleading—she did not seek to remove the guardian or end the guardianship. Mr. Hocker’s guardian moved to strike the notice of appearance.

Ms. Ryman and the ward’s son opposed the guardian’s motion. After a hearing the court made note of Mr. Hocker’s diminished level of cognitive function and granted the guardian’s motion to prohibit Mr. Hocker’s attorney from appearing on his behalf. The judge, who seemed to think that the ward’s son was just trying to keep tabs on his sister, noted that any concerns about the guardian’s fitness could be addressed in an action to remove her pursuant to state statute. Ms. Ryman and the ward’s son appealed this ruling.

The Massachusetts high Court ruled that apart from an adversarial action “due process does not require that a ward be able to consult with counsel about his guardianship.” The Court emphasized, however, that the ward and his family members “remain free to challenge Claman’s fitness as guardian or the ward’s continued need for a permanent guardian …” Left unanswered was how he might accomplish that task without the aid of counsel.

In Arizona attorneys for wards (especially those with mental health issues) often have extended appointments. It is unlikely that a lawyer’s attempt to appear for even an incapacitated ward would be rejected.

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