The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the fundamental right to marry through its history and most recently in the landmark case Obergefell v Hodges, 576 U.S. __; 135 SCt 2584; 192 LEd2d 609 (2015) when it legitimized same-sex marriage. A person’s right to enter into a marriage contract is guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution. However, a person under a legal guardianship (the “ward”) generally loses the right to enter into any contracts. The appointed guardian controls the ward’s social affairs and would have to approve many of the ward’s transactions. Can a ward enter into a marriage contract without the guardian’s consent in Michigan? Is a marriage contracted by the ward without the guardian’s permission automatically void?
As a general proposition, Michigan law holds that a person under a guardianship is presumed incompetent to make a valid contract and that any contract made by a person under guardianship is void. In Acacia Mut Life Ins Co v Jago, 280 Mich 360; 273 NW 599 (1937), an elderly man, while under a guardianship, modified the beneficiary on a life insurance policy without the guardian’s knowledge. The Michigan Supreme Court held that, “while an insane or incompetent is under actual and subsisting guardianship of estate, he is conclusively presumed incompetent to make a valid contract, notwithstanding it was made during a lucid interval.” Id at 362. “The guardian, an officer of the court, has the sole legal right to sell, assign or mortgage the property belonging to his ward’s estate, and any such transfer without the knowledge and consent of the guardian is void.” Id at 362.
However, this presumption can be overcome by showing that the person was mentally competent and that no undue influence was used to enter into the agreement. In Wies v Brandt, 294 Mich 240, 247; 293 NW 773 (1940), the legal guardian (an attorney) had the ward sign a deed of trust which turned over the entire estate to a trust for administration. Other relatives challenged the transaction as fraudulent and taking advantage of a ward who did not know what he was doing. The Michigan Supreme Court held that the transaction was not automatically void, but that the guardian had to produce evidence to overcome the presumption that the ward was incapable of entering into the contract and that her fiduciary position was not used to exert undue influence. The major difference in this case is that the guardian had knowledge of the ward’s transaction (unlike in Acacia Mut Life Ins Co v Jago).
The Michigan Legislature has expressed in recent years that guardianships should be designed to both provide for the needs of the ward while also providing for the most freedom possible that the ward can retain. To wit:
- “The court shall grant a guardian only those powers and only for that period of time as is necessary to provide for the demonstrated need of the incapacitated individual. The court shall design the guardianship to encourage the development of maximum self-reliance and independence in the individual.” MCL 700.5306(2).
- “If meaningful communication is possible, a legally incapacitated individual’s guardian shall consult with the legally incapacitated individual before making a major decision affecting the legally incapacitated individual.” MCL 700.5314.
- “To encourage self-reliance and independence in a legally incapacitated individual, the court may authorize the individual to function without the consent or supervision of the individual’s guardian or conservator in handling part of his or her money or property, including authorizing the individual to maintain an account with a financial institution.” MCL 700.5316.
However, the ward’s ability to function must be authorized by the guardian and/or the court. MCL 700.5316 further states that, “to the extent the individual is authorized to function autonomously, a person may deal with the individual as though the individual is mentally competent.” While the ward is encouraged to be self-reliant and independent, the statutory language is clear that the freedom to act must be known, if not specifically permitted, by the legal guardian.
It appears to be clear from case law and statute that a legally incapacitated adult ward could marry if the proposed marriage is both known and consented to by the legal guardian AND the ward can overcome the presumption that he was not with the mental capacity at the time of the marriage to contract into it.
Even if the marriage is known and consented by the legal guardian, Michigan’s marriage laws provide that a marriage entered into by a party not capable in law of contracting is absolutely void. MCL 552.1. Ordinarily, there is a strong presumption of validity of a marriage that must be overcome by clear and convincing evidence that the marriage is not valid. Quinn v Quinn, 4 Mich App 536, 538 (1966). The test to determine if a person who is mentally incompetent is incapable of contracting is whether that person “possesses sufficient mind to understand in a reasonable manner the nature and effect of the act in which the person is engaged” and “that the person had no reasonable perception of the nature or terms of the contract.” In re Erickson Estate, 202 Mich App 329, 332; 508 NW2d 181 (1993). Since lack of capacity can be subject to evidence, this type of marriage is said to be voidable but not automatically void from the onset. A person who contests the validity of this marriage would have to file an annulment action.
It should be noted that a person who is under a conservatorship does not have the same presumptions against their mental faculties that a ward under a guardianship has. In fact, MCL 700.5407(4) clearly states “[a] determination that a basis for a conservator’s appointment or another protective order exists has no effect on the protected individual’s capacity.” A ward does not need the conservator’s permission or consent to marry.
A new spouse entering the ward’s life is often looked upon with suspicion by the ward’s family. Why marry a legally incapacitated individual who may not have the faculties to function as a spouse? Is it about access to the ward’s money? These kinds of sudden life changes invite emotionally charged and intense litigation in both the probate court (regarding guardianship issues) and the circuit court (regarding annulment and divorce). If you are a ward, a guardian or a family member concerned about the effect of a marriage inside of a guardianship, you can benefit from the advice of an experienced probate attorney.
If you have further questions about guardianships or conservatorships, do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.