It seems to me that we are living through what could be a case study on the way the law evolves to address a rapidly changing social environment. More people are living longer. More people are experiencing age-related cognitive impairments. At the same time family dysfunction seems to be the rule, not the exception.
As a result, the law in the arena of adult guardianships and conservatorships is experiencing stress and litigants are experiencing a high degree of instability with respect to the process and outcomes in the trial courts. Trial courts hardly know what to do with these cases. They need clearer direction. The issues that are coming up are difficult and deeply personal, factually unique in each case. The laws only offer general guidelines about how to resolve these conflicts. It is time for our appellate courts to figure out how these laws can best be construed to provide just results notwithstanding the complex issues, and to make practical compromises to allow the system to work in larger counties. More laws, I think, are not the answer.
My thoughts on this topic were triggered by a recent unpublished opinion, In re Conservatorship of Janet Kapp (click on the name to read the case). The case itself is insignificant, but offers a good example of the issues that commonly arise in these matters – both in terms of the facts that are coming into court, and the legal challenges that trial courts are struggling to address. But the problem has been festering for some time. In fact, I wrote an article for the State Bar Journal several years ago on the topic: Adult Guardianships, the New Divorce (click on the name to read the article). It was evident then that we were facing a storm, now it seems the storm has arrived.
The issues include:
What does a Court have to do before passing over a family member with priority and appointing a professional fiduciary?
What role does family dysfunction play in this decision? Is it good enough for the trial judge to say: “You all can’t get along, so I’m appointing someone from outside the family”?
What role does alienation of affection play? Where a family member keeps other family members away, is that per se a basis for passing over that family member, or must a court look into whether that decision is rationally based? [On this point it is interesting that legislation is being proposed to create a process to address family visitation rights for vulnerable adults. Click here to read that proposed legislation. I personally see this effort as well-meaning but misguided. We don’t need more laws, and the process proposed by the legislation is, to my mind, unworkable. Trial courts have this power now (click here to see blog post Seeing Redd, for instance).]
What role do existing estate planning documents play? In this new Kapp case we see the trial court simply blowing past the existing documents, based on a Guardian ad Litem’s conclusion that the older adults were probably impaired when they were signed. Is that ok?
How much discretion do trial courts have in this context to avoid holding an evidentiary hearing?
In numerous unpublished opinions, the Court of Appeals has been all over the board on all of these issues. As for published opinions, in the last three years alone we have seen wild fluctuations from, for instance, the Bittner case (click here to read Bittner’s Bite) to the rather incredible legal conclusions reached in Brody (click here to read Another Brody Bombshell). Trial courts need guidance, but we need to appreciate this guidance has to allow for practical implementation – a workable system. It is one thing for an experienced and engaged trial judge in a small county to hold a two day (or more) trial on the issue of suitability, and another thing to tell larger counties with busy dockets and a high percentage of pro per litigants to do the same.
Some help may be coming. The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to take up Brody, and the Probate Section of the State Bar has been approved to file an Amicus Brief (proud to say that Chalgian and Tripp has been retained by the Section to prepare that brief). But I wouldn’t expect too much. While this case opens the door to the MSC to address many of these issues, they are likely to offer only some direction on the narrow issues in the appeal.
Finally, there’s an old saying: “May you live in interesting times,” and I’ve always felt that one of the things I enjoy about my chosen practice area is that it’s changing so rapidly, and the law is struggling to keep up – which makes for interesting times indeed for those of us who work with aging issues and vulnerable adult exploitation in particular. But when I looked up the saying on Wikipedia, I found this explanation of the saying, which suggests I may want to temper my enthusiasm:
“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purported to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, the expression is always normally used ironically, with the clear implication that ‘uninteresting times’ of peace and tranquillity are more life-enhancing than interesting ones, which from historical perspective usually include disorder and conflict.