In the Matter of Reena D: Guardian bears burden of proof in termination of guardianship established by consent

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion In the Matter of Reena D. on December 28, 2011. 

The Facts

In 2002, mother and father petitioned the court to grant guardianship of their twenty-two month old daughter Reena to the paternal grandfather and his wife. The purpose of the guardianship was to allow mother and father to travel to India to start a tile business and visit with the mother’s family. The court appointed the grandfather and his wife as Reena’s guardians.

In 2003, the grandfather died and his wife was appointed as sole guardian of Reena. Later that year, the mother and father petitioned to terminate the guardianship, and then entered into a temporary stipulation with the guardian allowing the guardianship to continue while the father obtained an alcohol assessment. A hearing on the motion to terminate would be held two months after the submission of the assessment.

Six months later, the guardian moved to dismiss the motion to terminate, and the court denied the termination of the guardianship without prejudice. In 2007, the parents renewed their motion to terminate the guardianship. A trial was conducted in 2009, where the father submitted the required alcohol assessment on the first day. The trial court placed the burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, on the parents to show “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision [was] no longer necessary to provide for [their daughter’s] essential physical and safety needs” and that terminating the guardianship would not “adversely affect [their daughter’s] psychological well-being.” The court determined that the parents had failed to meet their burden and denied the termination of the guardianship.   

The Appeal

The father appealed the decision denying the termination of the guardianship over his daughter. He argues that the trial court violated his state and federal constitutional rights by requiring him and his wife to bear the burden of proof to terminate the guardianship. He asserts that it is the respondent who should have the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the guardianship was necessary to provide for Reena’s essential physical and safety needs and to prevent significant psychological harm to her.

The Holding

In a guardianship established by consent, the guardian bears the burden of proof by clear and convincing  “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision” is “necessary to provide for the essential physical and safety needs of the minor” and that terminating the guardianship will “adversely affect the minor’s psychological well-being.” The court determined that a fit parent, that is one who has not been adjudicated unfit, is entitled to the Troxel presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interests of their child. Thus, where a guardianship has been established by consent, a parent remains a fit parent and it is the guardian who must carry the burden of proof articulated in RSA 463:15, V. The court held that the clear and convincing standard applies, which was in keeping with other holdings of the court in disputes between parents and nonparents over custody of a minor such as In the Matter of R.A. & J.M. and In re Guardianship of Nicholas P.

Because the trial court applied the incorrect burden of proof, the Supreme Court vacated the order denying the termination of the guardianship and remanded it for further proceedings.

The Takeaway

When establishing a guardianship, the parent who consents to the guardianship will have an easier path to terminating the guardianship.

An interesting issue will occur for a guardianship established by consent and adjudication. It is often the case where one parent consents to the guardianship, while the other objects and the guardianship is granted over the objection. In a proceeding to terminate the guardianship, the parent who contested the guardianship must carry the burden of proof, where the parent who consented shifts the burden to the guardian. Having different burdens in the same matter will make things interesting.  

After TPR & Adoption: Grandparents may petition for visitation rights

Grandparent’s rights vary from state to state. In New Hampshire, grandparent’s visitation rights are specifically designated by statute. However, obtaining visitation is not as easy as filing a petition and being granted time with one’s grandchildren. In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Troxel v. Granville, which struck down a breathtakingly broad Washington state statute that allowed any third party to sue for visitation over the objection of the parents and the outcome determined solely by the judge’s estimation of the child’s best interests, New Hampshire restricts the situations in which a grandparent can petition to establish visitation.

In order to pursue grandparent visitation, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, “whether divorce, death, relinquishment or termination of parental rights, or other cause.” Prior to the recent New Hampshire Supreme Court opinion In Re Athena D., it was unsettled whether a new nuclear family, brought about by the termination of parental rights and the adoption of the child, would cut off the rights of natural grandparents to visitation. The take away from Athena D. is that “petitions for grandparent visitation in the case of termination of parental rights are to be treated in the same manner as in the case of the death of a parent, stepparent adoption, or unwed parents.”

The Athena D. holding is especially important for the protection of society’s most vulnerable children. Children who are the subject of cases brought under the Child Protection Act, and subsequently state-action termination proceedings, may have indispensable bonds with their natural grandparents that must be preserved. While the children may need to be protected from the parents, and adopted into a new family, a child’s best interest may demand continued contact with the natural grandparents over the objection of the adoptive parents. This holding allows for that, so long as the grandparents meet the other requirements of a petition for grandparent’s visitation rights as set forth in RSA 461-A:13.

Grandparents rights in New Hampshire

Most people have heard of visitation in the context of a divorce or parenting matter for a parent. However, many New Hampshire residents are unaware that New Hampshire grandparents have certain rights to visit with their grandchildren, sometimes even over the objection of the parents. Although parents have constitutional rights and responsibilities regarding how they raise their own children, including where they live, what school they go to, and who they allow to see their children, grandparents are not without their own set of rights pursuant to RSA 461-A:13.

When a conflict arises where a parent or parents of a child decide that their parents are no longer allowed to see their grandchildren, grandparents may petition for a court order provided they meet the requirements of the statute. In order to petition for these rights, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, whether by divorce, death, termination of parental rights or other reason. In other words, if a mother and father who are together decide that the grandparent may not see their grandchild, the grandparent will not have standing to seek the visitation under the statute.    

If an absence of the nuclear family exists, the Court will examine the factors enumerated in the statute to determine whether the visitation should be granted. The factors include:

  • whether visitation with the grandparent would be in the best interest of the child,
  • whether it would interfere with any parent-child relationship, or with that parent’s authority over the child,
  • the nature of the relationship between the grandparent and the child, including the frequency of contact between them, whether they have resided together in the past, and whether there would be an emotional blow to the child by visitation or a lack thereof, and
  • the impact of the relationship between the parents and grandparents on the child, including whether any friction resulting from visitation would have a negative impact on the child.

In addition to examining the above factors, the court will often also appoint a Guardian Ad Litem and listen to her recommendations regarding the proposed grandparent visitation carefully.  If the child is emotionally mature, the court may consider the child’s opinion about the matter as well.   

While New Hampshire grandparents may seek visitation under New Hampshire law, not all states protect the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court, in Troxel v. Granville, overturned a Washington statute allowing grandparents the right to petition the courts for visitation of children over parental objections. The court stated that parents have a constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit. The court also affirmed that there is “a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.”

In spite of the Troxel ruling, New Hampshire courts have continued to grant grandparents rights because the statute contains safeguards for a parents rights over their children. Even if grandparents are in some way infringing on parental rights, what is most important is the best interest of the children. Sometimes, those interests are best served by maintaining a healthy grandparent-grandchild relationship, even over the objection of the parents. 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.