FEBRUARY 28, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 7
The issue arises with some regularity. A married couple, perhaps in their second marriage. Adult children. One spouse becomes ill — often, but not always, demented. The other spouse, unable to cope, turns the care of the ill spouse over to one of the children. That child figures out that, financially, at least, the ill spouse would be better off divorced. That way, control of the ill spouse’s share of the couple’s property could be managed for the sole benefit of the ill spouse, and care could be assured. But can the guardian file a divorce petition?
In most states, the answer is not clear. A handful of states have explicitly addressed the question, with mixed results. The latest state court to face the issue is the Supreme Court of Vermont.
Catherine and Philip Samis had been married for almost a quarter century when Mrs. Samis began to show signs of dementia. Mr. Samis, a Canadian citizen, withdrew across the border to one of the couple’s homes, taking most of their personal effects with him. Mrs. Samis’ son from a former marriage stepped in, secured a guardianship of his mother’s person and estate (in Arizona we would call it a guardianship and conservatorship), and began overseeing her care.
Mrs. Samis is a U.S. citizen, and would be entitled to Social Security benefits under her first (now deceased) husband’s account if she were not married. Since Mr. Samis is a Canadian citizen, there are no Social Security benefits payable to her while she remains married. Her son decided it would be in her best interest — financially, at least — to get divorced, and to divide the couple’s property so that he could control how her share was spent.
Once a divorce proceeding was filed, however, Mr. Samis objected. He argued that Vermont law did not permit a guardian to petition for divorce on behalf of a ward. As with most states, the Vermont statutes were silent on the subject; there was a single reference in Vermont court rules to guardians signing divorce petitions, but no indication how the Vermont legislature felt about the possibility.
After the divorce court denied Mr. Samis’ objection, granted the divorce, divided the couple’s property and ordered Mr. Samis to make a lump-sum support payment of about $300,000, he appealed. The Vermont Supreme Court was thus faced with determining whether Mrs. Samis’ guardian had the authority to initiate the proceeding in the first place.
Ruling that a guardian’s powers are limited to those spelled out in the guardianship statutes, the state’s high court reversed the divorce court’s orders. The justices considered the holdings in a handful of states, including Arizona, and concluded that most do not permit guardians to file divorces.
The ability to file for divorce is intensely personal, said the justices. The only Vermont precedent that addressed the issue at all, an 1877 Supreme Court case, agreed; in that case, a person who had been placed under a guardianship of the estate (what would be a conservatorship in Arizona) was permitted to file his own divorce proceeding despite the guardianship. Now it is clear that in Vermont, at least, the guardian can not file the divorce petition for a ward who has become incompetent.
What about the other states? The Vermont decision cites several that agree with its holding, including appellate courts in Kentucky, New York and South Carolina. Courts in Massachusetts and New Hampshire have allowed guardians to petition for divorce, but have done so based on specific state statutes. According to the Vermont justices, only two states, Arizona and Washington, have permitted guardians to file for divorce even without the support of statutes clearly authorizing the action. Samis v. Samis, February 18, 2011.
As the Vermont Supreme Court notes, Arizona is one of the minority of states clearly permitting the guardian to file a divorce proceeding, even without express statutory authority. That is the holding of the Arizona Court of Appeals in the 1993 case of Ruvalcaba by Stubblefield v. Ruvalcaba, which we reported on at the time (yes, Virginia, there was an Elder Law Issues in 1993/1994), and which we have since described in more detail for our readers.