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Guardian's Authority to Choose Ward's Friends

Date: 
07/01/2001
Author: 
Center for Public Representation for NAPAS

A description of the law on the authority of a guardian to choose his or her ward.

GUARDIAN'S AUTHORITY TO CHOOSE WARD'S FRIENDS

Prepared for NAPAS by
Center for Public Representation
Northampton, Massachusetts

                        2001

Question

    Does a guardian have the legal authority to control with whom an adult ward can spend
time and associate?

Answer

    As advocates we may find the very possibility that a guardian has the authority to
choose a ward's friends and associates disturbing and begin with a bias that the answer should
be no. While this may be an appropriate and useful advocacy position, the answer to this legal
question is not at all clear. The answer will be informed by an analysis of Constitutional law,
state law, the nature and scope of the guardianship order, the age of the ward, as well as
his/her ability to express clear preferences. State constitutions, statutes and regulations must
be part of any analysis of this question. Some states' "mental health patients'" rights statutes,
for example, Massachusetts recognize the fundamental nature and the right of association and
do not permit its restriction for any individual, unless there is a compelling clinical
justification.

    An individual's ability to spend time with and be in relationship with whomever he/she
chooses springs from the Constitutional right to free association. Arguably, no state civil court
order of any type can interfere with an individual's right to exercise his/her constitutional
rights. However, there are numerous state law guardianship cases that appear to do just that.

    One of the most frequently litigated issues is whether a guardian has the authority to
initiate divorce proceedings on behalf of a ward. The Illinois Supreme Court has recognized a
strong majority rule that, absent statutory authorization, a guardian cannot maintain an action,
on behalf of a ward, for the dissolution of a ward's marriage. Wood v. Beard
(Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1958), 107 So.2d 198, 200; Phillips v. Phillips (1947), 203 Ga. 106, 108-
09, 112, 45 S.E.2d 621, 622, 624; State ex rel. Quear v. Madison Circuit Court (1951), 229
Ind. 503, 504-05, 99 N.E.2d 254, 255; Mohler v. Shank's Estate (1895), 93 Iowa 273, 277-
79, 61 N.W. 981, 983; Birdzell v. Birdzell (1885), 33 Kan. 433, 435-36, 6 P. 561, 561-62;
Johnson v. Johnson (1943), 294 Ky. 77, 78, 170 S.W.2d 889, 889-90; Stevens v. Stevens
(1934), 266 Mich. 446, 254 N.W. 162; Higginbotham v. Higginbotham (Mo.Ct.App.1940),
146 S.W.2d 856, 857; In re Jennings (1981), 187 N.J.Super. 55, 58-59, 453 A.2d 572, 574;
Mohrmann v. Kob (1943), 291 N.Y. 181, 189-90, 51 N.E.2d 921, 924-25; Freeman v.
Freeman (1977), 34 N.C.App. 301, 302-03, 237 S.E.2d 857, 858; Hart v. Hart
(Tex.Ct.App.1986), 705 S.W.2d 332; cf. Campbell v. Campbell (1941), 242 Ala. 141, 142,
5 So.2d 401, 401-02 (stating the general rule but finding statutory authorization); Cohn v.

Carlisle (1941), 310 Mass. 126, 128, 37 N.E.2d 260, 262 (finding statutory authorization);
Kuta v. Kuta (1951), 154 Neb. 263, 264-66, 47 N.W.2d 558, 559 (finding statutory
authorization). In re Marriage of Drews, 115 Ill.2d 201, 503 N.E.2d 339, 104 Ill.Dec. 782
(Sup. Ct. Ill. 1986). Rehearing Denied Jan. 30, 1987. The Court, however, held that
annulment of a marriage was within the authority of the guardian under state law.
Presumably, this power is based on the premise that the ward does not have the legal authority
to enter a contract.

    The parens patriae authority of the state to impose guardianship on individuals determined
not to be competent carries with it all of the trappings of best interest. However,
Courts often couple the best interest standard with that of the individual's expressed preference.
In one guardianship case taking many twists and turns over a seven year period, a lesbian who
had experienced a head injury in an automobile accident and whose family, although initially a
co-guardian with her lover, moved for exclusive guardianship and the right to prohibit any
contact between their daughter and her lover. The modification of the guardianship and the
restriction on contact was originally permitted by the trial court and the Minnesota Court of
Appeals, based on a finding that it was in the ward's best interest and she was incapable of
expressing a preference. Ultimately, the woman's lover obtained guardianship based on a
subsequent determination by the Minnesota Court of Appeals that it was both the ward's
preference and also in her best interest. In re Guardianship of Kowalski, 382 N.W.2d 861,
(Minn. Ct. App. 1986), 392 N.W.2d 310, (Minn. Ct. App. 1986), and 478 N.W.2d 790 (Minn.
Ct. App. 1991). See also, In the Matter of the Guardianship of Miller 1988 WL 106662, (Ohio
App. 4 Dist.) (visitation of a stroke victim by previous common-law husband was not in the
ward's best interest and was consistent with the ward's preference). In the Matter of M.R., 628
A.2d 1274 (NJ 1994) (overruling trial court's order placing adult ward with mother when ward
had expressed preference to live with father). However, the best interest standard is alive and
at times is the only consideration in making a determination regarding association. In the Matter
of Abbott, 1995 WL 419968 (Del. Ch.), (court applied best interest standard exclusively in
determining whether to permit visitation and imposing limitations on frequency).

    There is a growing recognition in case law that guardianship should be narrowly tailored
and that the least restrictive approach should be adopted when limiting an individual's control
over his/her life. In the Matter of Guardianship of Braaten, 502 N.W.2d 512 (Sup Ct. N.D.,
1993), a case brought by the North Dakota P&A, the parents and guardians of an adult woman
with mild mental retardation sought to restrict her smoking and to keep her from a boyfriend
they believed to be abusive. The case challenged the broad general guardianship order that had
been entered by the trial court as there was only evidence of incompetence regarding medical
treatment. The Court found that this broad guardianship was not the least restrictive and that
the guardianship order should be narrowed to only encompass medical decisions. See also, In
the Matter of the Guardianship of Hedin v. Gonzales, 528 N.W.2d 567 (Sup. Ct. Iowa 1995);
In re the Matter of Boyer, 636 P.2d. 1085 (Sup. Ct. Iowa, 1981).

    There is no simple answer to whether a guardian can limit a ward's association. This
question is even more complicated for children. To minimize the likelihood of these possible
conflicts, P&As should be vigilant in their efforts to defend against unnecessary guardianships
or to have guardianships that may be appropriate to be as narrowly tailored as possible.

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