By Kate English (Law Clerk; Boston College Law School, 3L)
In a recent decision on guardianships, Guardianship of B.V.G., 474 Mass 315 (2016), the Supreme Judicial Court held that an “interested person” may have an interest in an incapacitated adult’s welfare, not just in her finances, sufficient to establish standing for a motion to intervene in the guardianship proceedings. The ruling overturned the lower court’s decision affirming the probate court’s holding.
The Facts: A Custody Battle and Temporary Guardianship Appointment
B.V.G. was born in 1993 and is currently an adult. She has an intellectual disability as well as ADHD and Tourette’s syndrome. After a lengthy divorce, her father was awarded sole legal and physical custody in 2005. Up until that point, B.V.G. had contact with both her mother and maternal grandfather, but upon receiving sole custody, her father decided to prevent contact between his daughter and her maternal relatives, including her maternal grandfather with whom she had a strong relationship.
In 2011, when B.V.G. turned 18, her father filed a petition with the probate court seeking appointment as her legal guardian because of her intellectual disability. The court approved the petition and he was appointed temporary guardian. The order stipulated that B.V.G. could independently determine with whom she socialized, but it placed restrictions on the contact between B.V.G. and her mother. The court subsequently issued an order setting certain terms for the communication between B.V.G. and her maternal grandfather. However, due to restrictions on her access to email set in place by her residential treatment program and her father, B.V.G. had limited contact with her grandfather and the intent of the order was not realized.
In response, the grandfather filed a motion to intervene, seeking to limit the pending permanent guardianship.
Establishing Standing for a Motion to Intervene
In order to establish standing for a motion to intervene, a party must prove that he or she is an “interested person.” An “interested person” is defined as:
includ[ing] heirs, devisees, children, spouses, creditors, beneficiaries, and any others having a property right in or claims against a trust estate or the estate of a decedent, ward, or protected person. It also includes persons having priority for appointment as personal representative, and other fiduciaries representing interested persons. The meaning as it relates to particular persons may vary from time to time and shall be determined according to the particular purpose of, and matter involving in, any proceeding. See G.L. c. 190B §1-201(24).
In an attempt to meet the interested person standard, the grandfather produced social media correspondence between himself and B.V.G., which he asserted was initiated by B.V.G., as evidence of his caring for her. He argued that her father’s attempts to restrict their relationship did nothing for her well being.
While the grandfather had a familial and emotional interest in B.V.G’s welfare, he did not have a financial interest in her estate. The probate court judge found this lack of financial interest to be enough to preclude standing, stating that the many definitions of interested person “hint of a financial, but not visceral, stake in the underlying proceedings” and that “interest in the welfare” of an incapacitated person “may not be sufficient.” The grandfather’s interest in her welfare was not sufficient for the Appeals Court either, as it affirmed the probate court’s decision.
The Father’s Argument
The grandfather appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court. While the father no longer contested that the grandfather had an interest in B.V.G.’s welfare, and did not dispute that he had restricted B.V.G.’s relationship with her grandfather, he argued that as her legal guardian, he should have the right to decide with whom she associates. The father maintained that he, not the grandfather, should determine what is in her best interest and argued that the grandfather did not fit into the plain meaning of the statute. The Supreme Judicial Court, in deciding whether or not the grandfather was an interested person, chose to look past the plain meaning and apply principles of statutory construction.
The Supreme Judicial Court Redefines “Interested Person”
The Court cites to Massachusetts Insurers Insolvency Fund v. Smith, 468 Mass. 561, 565 (2010), which holds that “a statute must be interpreted according to the intent of the Legislature ascertained from all its words construed by the ordinary and approved usage of the language, considered in connection with the cause of its enactment, the mischief or imperfection to be remedied and the main object to be accomplished.” The Court then goes on to remind us that the purpose of the law in question is to create a limited guardianship in which the incapacitated person is afforded the opportunity for his or her best interests to be served, and those interests may not always be financial. Furthermore, the Court notes that the statutory language includes a provision that gives the court discretion in determining who is an interested person. It states, “ the meaning [of ‘interested person’] as it relates to particular persons may vary from time to time and shall be determined according to the particular purposes of and matter involved in, any proceeding.” The Legislature intended for this statute to provide a means for an individual interested in advocating for an incapacitated person’s welfare to do so. It did not intend for recourse to be available only to those who have a financial interest in the matter.
In this particular case, the incapacitated individual was not subject to a guardianship due to her inability to make decisions concerning with whom she socialized. Additionally, there was no risk in B.V.G. continuing a relationship with her grandfather such that a guardian would be obliged to step in for her own protection. In fact, the grandfather’s sole interest was in B.V.G’s well-being, and because of that the Court determined that the grandfather’s established interest was sufficient.
Here, the Court got it right. The grandfather had a natural or “visceral” interest in his granddaughter’s welfare and that was enough to establish standing to intervene in the guardianship proceedings. By focusing not only on the words codified in the statute, but also on the legislature’s intent, the Court was able to bring to light the true purpose of a limited guardianship, which is to limit the power of the guardian, thereby maximizing the incapacitated person’s liberty and autonomy.