Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota Court of Appeals’

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.

Claimant Must Prove Undue Influence, Lack of Capacity

AUGUST 27, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 33
It has been some time since we wrote about the concepts of undue influence and lack of testamentary capacity — and the differences between these two legal concepts. A recent Minnesota appellate case strikes us as a good opportunity to revisit challenges to wills and trusts based on allegations of mental shortcomings.

Linda Samson (not her real name) was a widow, living in her own home in Minnesota. She had two children, a son and a daughter. She and her late husband had created a living trust several years before her husband’s death; it provided that after the second spouse died, the remaining estate would be divided into three shares. One share would go to the couple’s daughter, another to their son, and the third to their son’s wife.

In 2003 Linda was diagnosed with “early-state Alzheimer’s disease.” In 2006 she signed an amendment to her trust deleting both her daughter and daughter-in-law (and leaving everything to her son). In 2008 she signed two deeds to her home — one transferred her home out of the trust and into her name alone, and the second one transferred her home from her name into her son’s name (but reserving a life estate for herself).

Between her initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis and 2008 Linda’s medical records periodically referred to her memory loss but indicated that she was stable. She continued to live at home, though with some assistance. She had a sharp mental decline in the summer of 2008, and by fall of that year a home health agency was recommending 24-hour care. She moved into a nursing home in the spring of 2009, was enrolled in a hospice program and died in June of that year.

Linda’s daughter objected to the 2006 amendment to Linda’s trust and to the 2008 transfer of her home. She argued that her mother lacked the capacity to sign either of those sets of documents, and/or that her brother must have unduly influenced their mother to his own benefit (and her detriment).

The probate judge heard testimony from several people who knew and/or treated Linda. Two expert witnesses hired by her daughter, both doctors, had reviewed Linda’s medical records but had never met her. They testified that her capacity was obviously diminished, and that it would have been possible to unduly influence her.

On the other side, the lawyer who prepared the trust amendment and the deeds to her house testified that, though he had not met his client before, she seemed to be able to explain her reasoning for the changes and she knew who her children were and what she was doing. He testified that she had told him that it saddened her that her daughter was not very involved in her life, but that she was pleased at the extra care and attention she received from her son and his son, her grandson.

Both the initial and the follow-up sets of appointments with the lawyer had been arranged by Linda’s son, but in both cases (he testified) it was at her request. Although the lawyer had met with both Linda and her son initially, further discussions were with Linda alone; the transfer of the house had actually been initiated by the lawyer rather than either Linda or her son. The lawyer pointed out that it didn’t really change the disposition of her estate at all, since Linda’s son was already the sole beneficiary of her trust estate.

There was one odd moment, according to the lawyer’s testimony. During one of the interviews with Linda he sought to establish that she knew her family members and the relationships (a key part of the standard for determining testamentary capacity). When he asked Linda about her daughter, she said that she was sorry that they were not closer, that the daughter was on her third husband (in fact, her husband had just died), and that her daughter had suspected that she, Linda, had had an affair with the husband. When the lawyer expressed surprise and asked follow-up questions, Linda dismissed the idea and said she had gotten confused; that had been the plot of a biblical story she had read.

After trial, the probate judge ruled that Linda’s daughter had not proven that her mother lacked testamentary capacity OR that her brother exercised undue influence. The judge noted that the supporter of questioned documents has the burden of proof that the documents were executed properly. After that, though, the contestant of a will or trust has the burden of proving allegations of undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity. Linda’s daughter introduced testimony that there could have been undue influence, and that Linda’s capacity might be suspect — but her burden had been to prove that there was undue influence, or that Linda actually did not understand what she was signing.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, upholding the probate judge’s ruling. The appellate judges had the same understanding of the burden of proof, and saw no reason to set aside the probate judge’s findings. Linda’s last trust changes, and the transfer of her home to her son, were both upheld. In the Matter of the Smith Living Trust, August 20, 2012.

This Minnesota case is not the most eloquent on the subject, and of course it would have little or no precedential value in Arizona. The opinion is also “unpublished,” which means that the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided that it should not be cited as precedent even in Minnesota itself. Still, there are several reasons we like the decision and call attention to it here:

  • It is a nice exposition of the “burden of proof” issue, pointing out that many will and trust contests lose not because the proponent of the document prevails but because the contestant fails. Generally speaking, the person who challenges a will, trust, deed or other estate planning document has to overcome the presumption that the signer was competent and knew what he or she was doing.
  • It describes the sorts of things a good lawyer should do to protect the validity of documents he or she prepares. The lawyer met with Linda alone (we would have liked it even better if he had never met with Linda and her son together, but at least he dealt primarily with Linda directly), the deed change was prompted not by Linda’s son but by the lawyer himself, the lawyer could testify that he routinely took steps to assure that his clients are competent and aware of what they are doing.
  • On the other hand, the contestant had to rely, as is often the case, on inference and reconstruction. The contestant’s two expert witnesses had never met Linda, and their opinions were consequently guarded (they said that she was susceptible to undue influence, but they could not testify to the extent of any influence they might suspect).
  • Perhaps most importantly, the opinion makes clear that even someone with a long-standing diagnosis of dementia might still be able to sign estate planning documents. Testamentary capacity (the ability to sign a will) is not immediately compromised by virtue of a dementia diagnosis; Linda had carried her diagnosis for several years but still had the capacity to understand the nature of her trust change, to identify her family members and to describe what assets she wanted to pass to her son. The fact that she had one episode of fairly serious confusion did not prevent her from signing her new trust.
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