Law Office of John S. Palmer Attorney at Law

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Parental Rights and Guardianship

Posted Thursday, May 29, 2014 by John S. Palmer

When a disabled child reaches adulthood, it is common for parents to seek appointment as the child’s legal guardian to permit them to continue managing the child’s affairs.

When filing such a petition it is my practice to focus on the fact that such an appointment is in the best interests of the child, as the parent-child relationship is not, in and of itself, grounds for appointing a parent as guardian after a disabled child reaches adulthood.

So long as at least one parent is a fit custodian, guardianship for a minor child, even if he or she is disabled, is usually not necessary. However it is not unheard of; for example, guardianship may be required when the child receives a large sum of money from an inheritance or settlement of a personal injury claim. In such cases the court may create a guardianship as a mechanism for managing and protecting the funds until the child reaches adulthood; the guardian (even if it is a parent) would be required to periodically report to the court and demonstrate that the funds are being managed appropriately.

Otherwise guardianship for minor children is usually not necessary due to the strong constitutional rights of parents to raise their children without governmental interference, absent some compelling reason for the state to intervene. For example, in Troxel v. Granville (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court said that the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children “is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”

These parental rights no longer apply, however, when the child reaches adulthood. In the guardianship context, this means that when appointing a legal guardian for a disabled adult, the court will choose a guardian based on the best interest of the disabled adult, without deference to whether or not the guardian is the child’s parent; in fact, a guardian may limit a parent’s contact with a disabled adult child if it is in the best interest of the child to do so.

Thus, just last month in the case of Guardianship of Cornelius, the Washington Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision granting a professional guardian “great latitude” to limit contact between a mother and her disabled adult daughter, and declining to re-appoint the mother as guardian of the daughter’s person. (Mother and father remained co-guardians of the estate.)

The court noted that Washington’s guardianship statutes do “not treat parents or other family members as having the right to serve as guardian or as receiving special consideration for appointment as guardian.” As to the constitutional rights limiting the government’s ability to interfere with the parent-child relationship, the court said that “Washington decisions are explicit that a parent’s constitutional interest is limited to minor children” and that courts have been “reluctant to extend the constitutional protections afforded the parent-child relationship to cases involving adult children…The few courts that have recognized a parental liberty interest when it comes to adult children have found it to be an interest in companionship, not a right to raise or engage in decision making for the child.”

Therefore, the court found that even if the mother had some constitutional interest in the companionship of her daughter, that right had not been infringed upon because there was evidence supporting the trial court’s conclusion that although well intentioned, the mother’s behavior had had an adverse effect on the daughter and the mother had been given an opportunity to present her case before the ruling was made.

The Cornelius decision may be somewhat atypical as there are various reasons why one or both parents will often be the most appropriate person(s) to act as guardian for a disabled adult child. This usually includes the parent’s history of caring for the child; familiarity with the child’s condition, needs and capabilities; the often strong bond between parent and child; and the parent’s preexisting relationship with the child’s caregivers and health care providers. These are all factors that a court would consider when evaluating the parent’s appropriateness to serve as guardian for a disabled adult child.

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Law Office of John S. Palmer11911 NE 1st St, Ste. B204,Bellevue, WA 98005-3056