On October 8, 2008 the New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion for In the Matter of John Salesky and Jacqueline Salesky. The Court held that a guardian, appointed over the person and estate, may maintain a divorce action on behalf of that person with either the express authority of the Probate Court and as an equitable remedy to prevent an incompetent spouse from having no legal recourse to divorce.
John and Jacqueline were married in 1983. In 2003, after Jacqueline had left to live with her daughter, John suffered a stroke and then named Jacqueline the co-trustee and co-beneficiary of his trust. John also created separate durable powers of attorney for healthcare, property and financial matters which named Jacqueline as his agent.
After John’s stroke, Jacqueline began draining and disbursing significant cash assets. John discovered this and at some time after that John and Jacqueline had an altercation where Jacqueline yelled “John, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, I think I’m going to have to put you in a nursing home”. Sometime in early October 2004, John left Jacqueline and went to live with his brother and sister-in law (the Saleskys).
Later in October 2004, John filed a divorce petition on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Jacqueline objected to this and asked for the petition to be dismissed because John was not mentally competent to bring it. In April 2005 John had a full psychiatric evaluation and the report recommended that John receive assistance in making major decisions regarding his life. After this evaluation, the Saleskys petitioned the probate court to appoint them as co-guardians over John’s person and estate. The court denied Jacqueline’s request to appoint her guardian because the parties’ marital status was in the throes of dissolution and therefore appointing her guardian was a conflict of interest.
After a three day divorce trial, the court ultimately granted the petition for divorce stating that the Saleskys as co-guardians had the authority to maintain the action on John’s behalf and that irreconcilable differences caused the irremediable breakdown of their marriage.
On appeal, Jacqueline attacked the co-guardians ability to maintain a divorce action on several grounds:
1) Jacqueline argued that the co-guardians did not have the authority to maintain the divorce action and that the superior court interpreted the probate court’s order to confer implied authority upon the Saleskys to maintain the divorce action.
The court determined that the plain meaning of the words used in the probate courts orders expressly granted the Saleskys as co-guardians the right to marry and divorce on John’s behalf. To hold otherwise would mean that both John and the Saleskys lacked the ability to exercise those rights.
The court also examined the letter of appointment for the Salesky’s where they are specifically granted “ the authority to exercise all of the rights and powers set forth in RSA 464-A:26, I and II” and under section I, specifically requires the guardians to “prosecute or defend actions, claims or proceedings in any jurisdiction for the protection of the estate’s assets.” Therefore, these documents together expressly conferred the right to divorce to the co-guardians.
2) Jacqueline then argued that despite the probate court’s order the Saleskys could not prosecute the divorce action because the statute did not grant them that power.
The court looks at the language of the statute stating that RSA 464-A:25 sets out the general powers and duties of a guardian over a person, and RSA 464-A:26 sets out the general powers and duties of a guardian over an estate.
Both statutes include a catchall provision that says: “The court may limit the powers of the guardian… or impose additional duties if it deems such action desirable for the best interest of the ward.
The plain meaning of the catchall provisions is that the duties are not exclusive. These provisions expressly give the probate court the authority to impose “additional duties.” The only limit upon the additional duties is that those must be “desirable for the best interests of the ward.”
3) Jacqueline also argued that the legislature could not have reasonably intended, as a matter of public policy, to grant probate courts the authority to allow guardians to maintain divorce petitions.
The court examined a number of cases holding a competent spouse would have absolute and final control over the marriage if a guardian could not maintain an action for divorce. That kind of situation leaves the incompetent spouse without adequate legal recourse against potential abuse. In addition, the court points out that these policy concerns are evident in this case because while Jacqueline had withdrawn substantial funds from John’s accounts while acting under a power of attorney, the Saleskys were merely maintaining a divorce action that John had brought before he was found to be incompetent.
Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.