Rights of Parents in Guardianship

The legislature has recently made substantial changes to Iowa law regarding guardianships. As part of these changes, the law has now transferred guardianship for juveniles to the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Courts. It is understood that part of the rationale for this change is to ensure that the Juvenile Courts are able provide oversight in juvenile guardianships in order to ensure and protect against any potential abuses and exercise their authority to order the County Attorney’s Office to file a Petition for a Child In Need of Assistance is deemed appropriate. As an attorney who focuses on legal matters involving juveniles; particularly Child In Need of Assistance actions, guardianship, and working as a Guardian Ad Litem, Court Visitor, and Attorney for children, I have recently familiarized myself not only with these statutory changes but also with the courts’ application of these changes.

Iowa Code chapter 232D controls juvenile guardianships, where subchapter II provides what conditions can be found as a valid basis for establishment of a juvenile guardianship. Specifically, Iowa Code 232D.203 speaks to the fact that a juvenile guardianship can be established premised upon the consent of the child’s legal parents. In order to do so, the Court must find that the parents understand the nature of the guardianship and knowingly and voluntarily consent to the guardianship that the minor is in need of the guardianship.

Of note, the Iowa Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in In re Guardianship of L.Y. which set out the parameters of how guardianships founded upon parental consent are to be handled, specifically addressing how the courts are to handle requests from parents that guardianships be terminated when those guardianships were originally established by parental consent.

The Iowa Supreme Court has stated:

Parents’ fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of their children is seemingly meaningless without a preference for parents who have never been adjudicated unfit over all others in guardianship proceedings. We presume that fit parents are acting in their children's best interests in seeking not only to establish but also to terminate a guardianship, and this presumption casts the burden of proving the contrary on the non-parent. Accordingly, when interpreting Iowa Code section 232D.503, courts must start with the rebuttable presumption that the child's best interests are served in the parent's custody as opposed to all others.

As such, when a parent asks a court to terminate a guardianship originally premised upon the consent of the parent, the objecting guardians have the initial burden to overcome the rebuttable presumption that the guardianship should be terminated. The burden of proof was to be decided be by clear and convincing evidence as follows:

We, too, must apply the most demanding standard applied to civil cases—clear and convincing evidence—when we consider whether a guardianship should be maintained against a parent's wishes. “Evidence is ‘clear and convincing’ when there are no ‘serious or substantial doubts as to the correctness or conclusions of law drawn from the evidence.’” In re D.W., 791 N.W.2d 703, 706 (Iowa 2010) (quoting In re C.B., 611 N.W.2d 489, 492 (Iowa 2000) (en banc)). [22] [23] This heightened standard aligns with the standard of proof required to continue the guardianships of minor children established without parental consent and voluntary guardianships of adults. Id.

And that in order to continue a guardianship, the guardians must prove by clear and convincing evidence that “‘either physical harm or significant, long-term emotional harm,” not “merely social or economic disadvantages” “to ensure that the temporary guardianship will be continued only when a real threat of harm would result from termination’”. This, does not however mean that the Supreme Court has abandoned their “polestar” of cases involving children which is the “best interests of the children”, which has been previously defined in by the Supreme Court in Wade v. Clark as follows, “In conclusion, we interpret the best interest standard in the parent-third party custody statute to mean that the third party must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the child will suffer physical or emotional harm if custody were awarded to the biological parent. Once this showing is made, the third party must then show that an award of custody to him or her will best promote the child’s welfare and happiness”.

This assessment was illustrated in L.Y. when the Supreme Court found:

That “a child's anxiety over the transition from one home to another does not rise to the level of significant emotional harm that would rebut the parental presumption in favor of reuniting the child with the parent. See, e.g., In re Burney, 259 N.W.2d at 324 (“The most serious obstacle to [terminating the guardianship] is the psychological trauma the transfer of custody may cause [the child]. However, so far as the record discloses, [the child] is emotionally healthy, knows [the parents] well, and has not been in the [guardians’] custody so long that an extraordinary threat to his well-being is posed by the prospective transfer.”); Hulbert v. Hines, 178 N.W.2d 354, 362 (Iowa 1970) (“No doubt [the child] will experience some upset by being returned to her parents but we conclude her best interest now and in the future will be served thereby.”). No matter how cases like this one are resolved, there will likely be anxiety and stress for the child for a period of time” and that “Evidence sufficient to rebut the presumption may, but need not necessarily, consist of the parent's present unfitness, or past abandonment of the child such that the affections of the child and third party have become so interwoven that to sever them would seriously mar and endanger the future happiness of the child. However, a general finding that it would be in the child's “best interest” to be placed in the third party's custody is not sufficient to rebut the presumption”.

As such, it is important for potential guardians to consider how they would like to proceed when entering into guardianships with parents. While it is certainly attractive to enter into a guardianship premised purely upon a parents’ agreement, that does open the door that in the future when or should the parent choose to rescind their consent that the guardians would then have the burden of proof to maintain the guardianship should they like to do so. While this marks an important shift in the law in favor of recognition of parental rights, it is important to remember that even with these recent changes the backbone of the law regarding juvenile guardianships remains the “best interests” of the children and as such even if a guardianship is established on parental consent, that does not necessitate that a guardianship must end should the parent revoke their consent at a future date.