On October 15, 2020, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued a published opinion in In re Guardianship of Versalle, ______ Mich App ______; 2020 WL 6106096 (2020) which considered whether appointment of a grandparent as guardian for minor children violated the parent’s constitutional right to raise his children.
The father had two minor children. After the father lost his apartment, he permitted his children to live with his mother (the children’s grandmother) for approximately two years, but he did not provide her with any legal authority over the children. The grandmother petitioned the Muskegon County Probate Court to appoint her as guardian for the children under MCL 700.5204(2)(b), which provides that “[t]he court may appoint a guardian for an unmarried minor if . . . [t]he parent or parents permit the minor to reside with another person and do not provide the other person with legal authority for the minor’s care and maintenance, and the minor is not residing with his or her parent or parents when the petition is filed.”
The Probate Court appointed the grandmother as guardian of the two children, and the father appealed. The father argued that he had a constitutional right to raise his children, and that the Probate Court’s application of MCL 700.5204(2)(b) had improperly interfered with his constitutional right. The father also argued that the presumption favoring natural parents in the child custody context should also apply in guardianship proceedings.
The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed that the father had a constitutional right to raise his children, and that such right existed in the guardianship context. “[P]arents have a constitutionally protected right to make decisions about the care, custody, and management of their children.” Id at 1 (internal quotation and citation omitted). “[A] parent’s constitutional right to raise his or her child is also applicable in the guardianship context.” Id at 2. However, such right is not absolute; an unfit parent may forfeit his rights over his children. And the situation contemplated by MCL 700.5204(2)(b) necessarily reflects that a parent has become unfit. “[B]y coming under the purview of MCL 700.5204(2)(b), [the father] had essentially stopped providing adequate care for the children, i.e., become unfit.” Id at 3.
The Court of Appeals also held that the presumption in favor of natural parents did apply in the guardianship context as well as the child custody context. “[T]he 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.” Id at 4. However, such presumption could be rebutted by evidence that the parent had become unfit. “[M]CL 700.5204(2)(b) provides an opportunity to rebut the presumption that respondent was a fit parent.” Id at 3. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ruled that MCL 700.5204(2)(b) did not violate the father’s constitutional right to raise his children, affirming the Probate Court’s appointment of the grandmother as guardian for the minor children. The statute will thus continue to be available to assist persons given custody of, but not legal authority over, somebody else’s minor child.