The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a probate court order granting a paternal grandparent’s petition to be named guardian of her son’s two minor children, striking down the respondent’s argument that MCL 700.5204(2)(b) of the Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC) is unconstitutional.
The respondent-father in In re Guardianship of Versalle, Minors (Docket Nos. 351757 and 351758) claimed that MCL 700.5204(2)(b) is unconstitutional because it does not impose the presumption in favor of a fit parent, thereby violating his constitutional right to raise his children.
“We disagree,” the Michigan Court of Appeals said. “[W]e conclude that MCL 700.5204(2)(b) is constitutional and does not infringe on a parent’s constitutional right to the care, custody, and management of his or her children.”
Instead, MCL 700.5204(2)(b) “implicitly affords” a parent the constitutional presumption that he or she is a fit parent, while at the same time providing a possible guardian the opportunity to rebut that presumption, the Court of Appeals said.
Judges Christopher M. Murray, Mark J. Cavanagh and Thomas C. Cameron were on the appellate panel that issued the published decision.
The petitioner is the respondent’s mother and the paternal grandmother of the children. In May 2019, she filed petitions seeking to be appointed guardian of the respondent’s two minor children under MCL 700.5204(2)(b) of EPIC.
The petitioner testified the children had lived with her since September 2017, after the respondent was evicted from his apartment and moved into a hotel. According to the petitioner, the respondent let the children live with her because “[h]e couldn’t provide for them in the hotel” and “didn’t want them to be in the hotel.” The respondent, however, did not give the petitioner any legal authority over the children. The petitioner stated the respondent did not give her legal authority because he did not want the petitioner to take away his children.
At the time the petitions for guardianship were filed, the children lived with the petitioner. At the time of the hearing on the petitions, however, the children lived with the respondent in Texas because he had taken them away from the petitioner.
The Muskegon County Probate Court granted the petitions for guardianship.
The respondent appealed.
On appeal, the respondent argued the statutory presumption favoring natural parents under the Child Custody Act should also apply to guardianship proceedings.
“This statutory presumption is applicable to child custody disputes between the parent and a third person, and states as follows: ‘the court shall presume that the best interests of the child are served by awarding custody to the parent or parents, unless the contrary is established by clear and convincing evidence,’” the Court of Appeals said, citing MCL 722.25(1). “We have stated that ‘the Legislature plainly recognized the fundamental constitutional nature of a parent’s interest in childrearing when it enacted the presumption that in all custody disputes involving natural parents and third persons, absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, parental custody served the child’s best interests.’”
In the context of the Child Custody Act, this presumption “was found to control over the presumption in favor of an established custodial environment,” the Court of Appeals observed. “Our Supreme Court stated that ‘Troxel [v. Granville, 530 US 57 (2000)] established a floor or minimum protection against state intrusion into the parenting decisions of fit parents. … The constitutional protection in Troxel centers on the “traditional presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interest of his or her child.”’”
The Court of Appeals continued, “While we have only considered the constitutional protection afforded parents in the child custody context, such right must also be afforded in the guardianship context. Because ‘[p]arents have a constitutionally protected right to make decisions about the care, custody, and management of their children,’ this right cannot be dependent on the type of proceeding. … In other words, a parent does not lose his or her constitutional right that would be afforded in a child custody case just because the parent is part of a guardianship proceeding instead of a custody case. … Therefore, we conclude that a parent’s constitutional right to raise his or her child is also applicable in the guardianship context.”
Next, the Court of Appeals addressed the constitutionality of MCL 700.5204(2)(b). “The presumption respondent seeks is that he was a fit parent. [W]e agree that such presumption should apply to guardianship proceedings. ‘Fit parents’ are parents that adequately provide for their children.”
However, by coming under the purview of MCL 700.5204(2)(b), the respondent had essentially stopped providing adequate care for the children – that is, he became unfit, the Court of Appeals explained. “In other words, MCL 700.5204(2)(b) provides an opportunity to rebut the presumption that respondent was a fit parent. The record reflects that the children were with petitioner for two years and that there was never any indication as to when the children would return to respondent, if ever. Petitioner testified that respondent was evicted from his apartment here in Michigan and that he allowed the children to live with her while he stayed in a hotel. Respondent then moved to Texas and still allowed the children to live with petitioner. Under MCL 700.5204(2)(b), the children had permanently lived with petitioner, and there is no evidence to indicate that respondent intended anything otherwise. There was also evidence that respondent received death benefits from the mother’s death but he did not provide any of the money to the children. Furthermore, petitioner testified that she rarely received any money from respondent to help care for the children. Respondent also never granted petitioner legal authority to care for the children.”
Therefore, the Court of Appeals said, because the respondent left the children with the petitioner permanently without granting petitioner legal authority to care for the children, the respondent had stopped providing adequate care for the children. “The requirements of MCL 700.5204(2)(b) essentially demonstrate a situation where a parent has stopped providing adequate care to a child and a guardian needs to step in to provide for the child. Therefore, the statute implicitly protects a parent’s constitutional right to the care, custody, and maintenance of his or her child by not allowing a guardianship to be imposed in circumstances where the parent adequately provides for the child, i.e., is a fit parent. Such protection prohibits the state from interfering with that parent’s constitutional right.”
In conclusion, the Court of Appeals rejected the respondent’s argument that this case was similar to Troxel. “In this case, the guardianship statute does not interfere with respondent’s fundamental right to raise his children as the Washington statute did in Troxel.”
Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that MCL 700.5204(2)(b) is constitutional and does not infringe on a parent’s constitutional right to the care, custody and management of his or her children. “Rather, the statute implicitly affords a parent the constitutional presumption that he or she is a fit parent, while also providing a potential guardian the opportunity to rebut that presumption.”