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Preferential Treatment

Written by on Feb 17, 2009| Posted in: Guardianship Litigation

Third District Upholds Palm Beach Probate Court’s Appointment of Guardian Not Related to the Ward by Blood or Marriage.

The decision of whether and when to have a loved one declared incompetent is a difficult and challenging process, and should involve an attorney who is familiar with the issues and procedures of guardianship law. In Florida, the guardianship statutes provide for certain procedures to protect the rights of the person who is allegedly incompetent.

The process generally involves the filing of a Petition to Determine Incapacity. Fla.Stat. §744.331(1). Thereafter, the Court will appoint an examining committee to assess the mental and physical condition of the person who is allegedly incapacitated. Fla.Stat. §744.331(4). Depending on the report presented to the Court, a hearing will be conducted wherein testimony and other evidence is heard, and the Court decides if the alleged incapacitated person is actually incapacitated and then whether a guardian is necessary.

When a person is declared incompetent by a Florida court, the judge often is presented with conflicting applications by different persons, often family members of the incompetent person, who propose to be guardian and look after the financial and medical affairs of the incompetent.

Although Florida judges are afforded wide discretion in these difficult decisions, there are some statutory guidelines regarding the considerations in the appointment of guardians. Florida law directs that a person related by blood or marriage receives preferential treatment. The law also directs courts to consider the following:

“(1) Subject to the provisions of subsection (4), the court may appoint any person who is fit and proper and qualified to act as guardian, whether related to the ward or not.
(2) The court shall give preference to the appointment of a person who:
(a) Is related by blood or marriage to the ward;
(b) Has educational, professional, or business experience relevant to the nature of the services sought to be provided;
(c) Has the capacity to manage the financial resources involved; or
(d) Has the ability to meet the requirements of the law and the unique needs of the individual case.
(3) The court shall also:
(a) Consider the wishes expressed by an incapacitated person as to who shall be appointed guardian;
(b) Consider the preference of a minor who is age 14 or over as to who should be appointed guardian;
(c) Consider any person designated as guardian in any will in which the ward is a beneficiary.
(4) If the person designated is qualified to serve pursuant to s. 744.309, the court shall appoint any standby guardian or preneed guardian, unless the court determines that appointing such person is contrary to the best interests of the ward.” Fla. Stat. § 744.312.

Even though the statute directs that “a person who is related by blood or marriage to the ward” receives preference in appointment; the inquiry does not end there. The court also has the discretion to give preference to a non-relative who possesses particular experience or ability to serve as guardian. See, e.g., Treloar v. Smith, 791 So. 2d 1195 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001) (finding that while next of kin are given first consideration, statute does not mandatorily require that such an appointment be made; rather, statute specifically provides that court may appoint any person who is qualified, whether related to the ward or not). Moreover, it is the best interest of the ward that trumps other considerations in the appointment of a guardian. See, e.g., In re Guardianship of Stephens, 965 So. 2d at 852 (“The best interests of the Ward — which include choosing a qualified guardian for the Ward — come first. Family member preference in and of itself is secondary, regardless of how well qualified the family members are.”).

These principals were recently examined by the Florida Third District court of Appeals when it reviewed the decision of a Palm Beach County Probate Judge in Morris v. Knight, 34 Fla.L.Weekly D321a; –So.2d–; 2009 WL 321586, February 11, 2009 (Fla.3rd DCA) which involved an appeal of Judge Karen Martin’s decision to appoint a guardian over Estelle Pratt Barker, a ninety seven year old woman who was found to be incapacitated.

Judge Martin of the Palm Beach County Probate Court was faced with three individuals who petitioned for guardianship and control of Ms. Barker’s person and property: Ms. Glinton, who is Barker’s first cousin; Ms. Morris, whose mother is Barker’s first cousin; and Mr. Knight, who is a neighbor and friend of Barker. A hearing was held on the three competing petitions.

The testimony revealed that Glinton and Morris were related to Ms. Barker, however, there was also testimony from Barker’s attorney that in the thirty years that he served Barker, she never talked about or came in with any family member except Ms. Morris.

Regarding Knight, Glinton asserted that he used Barker’s money to purchase a new car for himself and that he had been Baker Acted for mental illness. Glinton, however, could not offer any evidence of such allegations during her testimony, and the court thus found them to be false. The court also determined that Glinton made other representations not supported by evidence and ultimately found her unfit to serve as guardian.

The testimony revealed that Mr. Knight had known Barker since he was a child visiting his grandmother who lived across the street from Barker in the 1960s. “Knight is a former U.S. Marine and retired sanitation worker for the City of West Palm Beach. He has also worked as a mental health technician and as an aide in a nursing home. He now receives both Veteran’s Administration benefits and a pension from the City of West Palm Beach. At trial, Knight stated that from about 1999 to 2002, Barker’s family did not visit her much. Knight would see Barker come out on the porch of her home around 7:00 a.m. each day and sit alone all day. Knight began stopping by to bring Barker coffee and food, to visit with her, and to wash her clothes and clean her house. When Barker’s doctor made the decision to place Barker in a nursing home, Knight continued to visit her there six days a week for two hours each day. Knight testified that he intends to continue visiting Barker, washing her clothes, and bringing her snacks whether he is appointed guardian or not.”

“Grace Morrow (“Morrow”), an adult protective investigator with the Department of Children and Families, described Barker and Knight’s relationship as being “like a mother-son relationship.” Morrow also added that Knight was always there for anything that she or Barker needed and that Barker was happy with Knight’s care and companionship.”

Judge Martin of the Palm Beach County Court denied Morris and Glinton’s petitions for guardianship and appointed Knight as Barker’s guardian. The court considered the fact that Morris and Glinton are related to Barker, but did not find that fact to be dispositive. Instead, based on Knight’s fitness to serve as guardian and Barker’s demonstrated wish to entrust her care to Knight, the court determined Knight to be the most appropriate person to serve Barker’s best interests.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Martin. Applying the abuse of discretion standard of review, the appellate court confirmed Judge Martin’s decision.

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