Nice analysis in this recent unpublished COA opinion. Click here to read In Re Conservatorship of Stephen Michalak. Congrats to my colleague Valerie Kutz-Otway for her successful advocacy on behalf of her client, Mr. Michalak.
The case suggests an issue that I think we all struggle with at times, the extent to which the determination of capacity is a legal or medical matter. While the correct answer is clearly – it’s a legal determination made by the probate judge – as the analysis suggests, the line is fuzzy at best. Courts often rely extensively on medical opinions to make their findings, and the use of medical experts is becoming more and more important in our practices. This opinion only bolsters the proposition that medical opinions carry a lot of weight – especially, where, as in this case, they remain uncontroverted by offsetting medical proofs.
It is worth note that in this case that the COA does not order that the conservatorship be terminated, but only remands the matter and instructs the trial judge to consider a less restrictive arrangement, which could be a limited conservatorship or, although not suggested by the COA, perhaps the execution of a new power of attorney by Mr. Michalak appointing someone other than the petitioner-child.
This case relies heavily on the Bittner decision, discussed in a prior post (click here to read about Bittner) and displays some of the same dynamics – probate judges seeing problems with vulnerable adults and moving to put the matter under their watch so as avoid further mischief – an understandable and somewhat noble sentiment. But the COA here, as in Bittner, pushes back against this inclination; reminding us once again that the balance of dignity and independence against safety and convenience remains the tricky sticky wicket at the heart of our common efforts. For more on my thoughts on “the balance” click here.