The right to marry is a fundamental civil right that is guaranteed by the United States Constitution and, more specifically, protected under the civil right to enter into contracts (as marriage is seen as a contract between two people governed by the state). However, when a person (the “ward”) has a guardian appointed to them, the ward generally no longer has the ability to enter into contracts, and the appointed guardian has the authority to manage and enter into those contracts on the ward’s behalf. Thus, when a ward has a guardian appointed to them, they are generally no longer able to marry unless the guardian allows it and enters into the contract on their behalf. But what happens when a ward attempts to enter into a marriage without the guardian’s consent? What is the standard that governs the court’s decision in determining the ward’s ability to enter into marriage?

Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on this exact situation and stated the legal standard in the case of In re Guardianship of O’Brien, 2014 WL 2178761 (May 27, 2014). In this case, Timothy and Judith O’Brien were the parents and guardian of 27-year-old Michael O’Brien who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The guardianship order gave his guardians authority over Michael’s care, comfort and maintenance, necessary medical or other professional care, to approve or withhold of any contract except for necessities, to apply for governmental benefits, and to have control over his residence. Michael lived in a group home and began dating E.J., who was in her early 20s, had a young child, and was a client in a special needs program. Michael and E.J. saw each other about twice a week, and Michael slept over at E.J.’s residence about one night a month.

Michael moved the district court for a declaratory judgment that he had the right to marry E.J. After receiving testimony and documents, the referee recommended denying Michael’s motion. He described testimony given by Michael, E.J., and the guardians, but he did not make credibility findings. Although the referee referenced none of the information from the filed reports, he concluded that clear and convincing evidence existed that Michael remained an incapacitated person who lacked sufficient understanding or capacity to enter into a marriage contract. The court adopted the recommendation and referred to the recommendation as specific findings of fact. The appellate court stated that marriage was a fundamental civil right subject to reasonable regulation by the state, provided that such regulations did not significantly interfere with decisions to enter into the marital relationship. Minnesota law also restricted the power of guardians to include only those powers necessitated by the ward’s limitations and demonstrated needs. The court held: “The standard for a ward’s competency to marry was that he understood the meaning, rights, and obligations of marriage; the burden of proof was on those opposing a ward’s competence to marry.”

The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the lower court failed to make findings showing a demonstrated need to restrict Michael’s right to marry. Instead of findings and credibility assessments, the referee’s recommendation merely recounted the testimony of the participants in the hearing. The lower court focused primarily on testimony describing Michael’s behavioral problems, not his mental capacity to comprehend the meaning, rights, or obligations of marriage. The court’s denial of declaratory judgment was reversed and remanded for the court to reconsider based on appropriate findings.

So what does this mean?

Essentially, this means that in order for the ward to marry, he or she MUST understand the meaning, rights, and obligations of marriage. This is an issue of mental competence, in that the ward must have the mental ability to comprehend the implications of marriage and the resulting consequences. It is up the guardian (or whoever is challenging the ward’s ability to marry) that the ward does not possess the requisite mental competence or ability to understand the rights and obligations of marriage. Therefore, the ability of ward to marry is determined by the court’s decision of the ward’s mental competency as to marriage. Additionally, the trial court cannot simply rely on testimony to make this determination, but must make a specific finding of fact that the ward does not have the requisite mental ability to enter into marriage.

Thus, the mere fact that a guardianship exists probably will not prevent the ward from getting married, or the marriage from being determined to be valid. The level of capacity required to enter into a marriage agreement is not exactly the same as the level of capacity required to make one’s own placement or medical decisions — or even to enter into other kinds of contracts. Another case, In Re Marriage of Oakley, decided on April 27, 2011, emphasizes this point, where the Missouri Court of Appeals determined that the burden of proving that the ward lacked capacity to marry was on his guardian and that the guardian had failed to carry that burden. The evidence considered by the trial judge was sufficient to support his finding that the ward, despite any guardianship order, understood the nature and effect of marriage well enough to enter into this most personal of contractual arrangements, and thus, the marriage was considered valid.

In conclusion, although a guardianship generally denies the ward from any contractual abilities and additional civil rights, the ward may still possess the ability to get married. This, however, is determined by the court’s standard that the ward has the mental competency to understand the rights, obligations, and consequences of getting married. Further, the burden of proof rests on the opposing party to establish that the ward does not possess such mental competency. For those who already have a guardianship in place, or have been thinking about beginning guardianship proceedings, this standard may or may not have a profound effect on your current ward’s ability to marry.