Ward Seeks Court Permission to Marry His Girlfriend

JUNE 2, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 20

We have written before — earlier this year, in fact — about whether individuals who are under guardianship have the ability to get married. When this question comes up (and it should be said that it is rare) it usually is in a context like that of our January story about “Cynthia Madsen” — an older family member, usually a parent, gets married (often to a caregiver) and that marriage is challenged after the fact. Sometimes, though, the story can play out in a different direction.

Matt Obregon (that’s not his real name) is a 27-year-old living in Minnesota. His parents have been appointed as guardian of Matt’s person, because he lacks capacity to make his own decisions about medical care and living arrangements. Matt has diagnoses of bipolar disorder and severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Matt lives in a group home, where he has responsibility for his own general housekeeping duties but is mostly free to come and go as he pleases. He takes several medicines, and the group home staff manages his medication regimen. The court that appointed his parents as guardian specifically gave them authority to give or withhold approval of any contract Matt enters into other than one for “necessaries” (i.e. — food, shelter, medical care and the like).

When Matt was about 23 he began dating Eliza, a young woman who is in a day program for individuals with special needs. Eliza has a young child (not Matt’s), and Matt and Eliza spend a lot of time together. Matt sleeps over at Eliza’s residence about once a month, and they get together about twice a week.

After a couple years of dating, Matt and Eliza decided they wanted to get married. Matt’s parents (remember that they are his guardians) did not think it was in Matt’s best interest to marry Eliza, and so they withheld approval.

The way this story would play out for most of the contested marriage scenarios we see would have been for Matt and Eliza to get married anyway, though they might have to go to a different county, or even a different state, in order to get a license, since Matt has a guardian. Matt’s parents would then have to decide whether to seek to annul the marriage, or initiate a divorce proceeding as his guardian, or simply let the marriage stand. But that’s not the way this story played out.

Instead, Matt filed a petition with the guardianship court, asking permission to marry Eliza. He argued that even though he had a guardian, he had the capacity to understand the nature of a marriage and the responsibilities that he would be taking on. His guardians disagreed, insisting that Matt’s limitations made it impossible for him to consent to the marriage.

Note that the issue before the guardianship court was not whether it would be in Matt’s best interests to allow him to marry. Instead, it was whether he had the necessary level of capacity to enter into a marriage agreement. Both parties agreed that a ward under guardianship can marry if he or she has capacity; their only disagreement was about whether Matt had the capacity.

Matt’s parents testified in the subsequent court proceeding, telling the judge about several recent incidents indicating Matt’s limitations. In one, he had shot out windows at a cabin using a BB gun. In another, he had grabbed the wheel of the group home van while residents were on an outing. The court also considered letters, apparently from one of Matt’s doctors, saying he suffered from a variety of conditions and had an IQ of 71. According to Matt’s mother, his functional ability is about that of a seven-year-old.

At the end of the hearing the guardianship judge ruled that Matt did not have the requisite mental capacity to “make or communicate responsible decisions regarding his person, including the ability to enter into a marriage contract.” Matt’s request to marry Eliza was denied.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals next considered Matt’s request, and it disagreed with the guardianship judge. According to the appellate court, the question is not whether Matt’s mental state differs from the accepted norms — the inquiry should focus on whether Matt has the capacity to understand marriage and to choose a spouse. The findings of the guardianship court should have been focused not on his diagnosis or his behaviors, but on whether he can comprehend the nature of the marital relationship, the obligations he would be taking on, and the benefits he might obtain from marrying.

A marriage contract is indeed a contract, noted the appellate court. But it is a different kind of agreement than a commercial contract (to buy a car, say, or to rent an apartment). Because marriage is a fundamental right, and because wards should be permitted — and even encouraged — to exercise as much personal autonomy as possible, any restriction on the ability to get married should be sharply limited.

Does this mean that Matt and Eliza can now get married? Not yet. The Court of Appeals sent Matt’s request for what’s called a “declaratory judgment” back to the probate judge for further hearings and a final decision. The next hearing, though, must focus narrowly on Matt’s capacity to get married, not on his diagnosis and behaviors. And one other thing: the burden of proving that he does not understand the nature of marriage rests on his guardians — it is not his burden to affirmatively show that he has capacity, even though he does have a general guardian. Guardianship of O’Brien, May 27, 2014.

Would the same standard apply in an Arizona guardianship court? It’s not clear — there is not much case law, and no clear statutory authority. But the Minnesota decision does reflect modern thinking about personal autonomy and self-determination for people under guardianship, and it seems likely that it would be persuasive (but not controlling) in a similar Arizona proceeding.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC