Law Office of John S. Palmer Attorney at Law

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Guardianships and Standing

Posted Monday, December 31, 2012 by John S. Palmer

In order to file a lawsuit or other legal action, or be permitted to intervene as a party to a pending legal proceeding, a party generally must demonstrate to the court that he or she has sufficient connection to the matter to support that party’s participation in the case. This is generally referred to as standing.

Standing is often defined quite narrowly. However, standing to bring a guardianship petition is defined quite broadly. RCW 11.88.030 states that anyone may petition for the appointment of a guardian for an incapacitated person, provided that the petition states the reason why the appointment of a guardian is sought and “the interest of the petitioner in the appointment.” The statute also provides that a petitioner shall not incur any liability for filing a guardianship petition if it is brought “in good faith and upon reasonable basis.” This is all designed to encourage people who otherwise might lack standing, or hesitate to get involved out of fear of liability, to act on behalf of an incapacitated person in need of a guardian.

The alleged incapacitated person obviously has standing to participate in the guardianship proceeding and object to the appointment of a guardian; however, if he or she is adjudicated to be incapacitated, RCW 11.92.060 provides that a guardian of the estate shall represent the incapacitated person’s interests, and assert any claims or defenses on his or her behalf, in any future litigation in which the incapacitated person is a party.

In apparent reliance on this statute, the Court of Appeals recently held that standing to file an appeal on behalf of the incapacitated person, asserting that the guardianship proceeding itself violated his or her constitutional rights, generally rests with the guardian and not the petitioner or any other party to the proceeding.

The case involved Sean, a developmentally disabled adult with 6 siblings, 2 of whom sought to be appointed as his legal guardian after their mother died. After a bench trial at which Sean, his therapist, and others testified, the court appointed his sister Lorraine as his full legal guardian.

Two of the siblings appealed the ruling on Sean’s behalf. One of the appellants was Daniel, the other sibling who wanted to be guardian. He and his sister Christine alleged that the trial court violated Sean’s procedural due process rights and that the guardianship statutes were unconstitutionally vague as applied to Sean.

Daniel and Christine claimed they had the right to file an appeal on Sean’s behalf under both traditional standing rules as well as the “next friend” standing doctrine used in federal habeas corpus proceedings, where a petition may be filed “by the person for whose relief it is intended or by someone acting in his behalf.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed and dismissed the appeal for lack of standing:

Whether proceeding under traditional analysis of standing to assert rights for a third party or under the federal habeas corpus “next friend” analysis, a litigant must demonstrate the allegedly injured third party lacks the ability to vindicate his or her rights before a court may grant the litigant standing to act on the injured third party’s behalf…We hold that Christine and Daniel have not sufficiently demonstrated Sean’s inability to vindicate his rights through Lorraine, his appointed guardian, and they therefore lack standing to appeal the trial court’s rulings in the guardianship proceeding.

Because Daniel and Christine did not contend that these alleged errors “led to an erroneous incapacity determination or resulted in an erroneous appointment of Lorraine as Sean’s guardian,” the court did not address whether a litigant would have standing to appeal a decision where the asserted errors did implicate an incapacitated person’s ability to protect his or her own interests, such as a claim that the trial court erroneously appointed an unqualified guardian.

In the Matter of the Guardianship of Sean Raymond Cobb, Court of Appeals docket no. 40598-9 II, decided December 11, 2012.

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