A recent judicial opinion made clear that in deciding who to appoint as guardian, New Jersey courts will look not just at the proposed guardians themselves but at the company they keep.
A contested guardianship is one where different people want to be guardian or where the ward doesn’t want a guardian. In the Matter of S.H. was a contested guardianship in which the mother and sister both wanted to be guardian of a young woman with developmental disabilities, named Sarah.
Under New Jersey law, courts should appoint a parent over a sibling. And the Court in this case seemed to find that Sarah’s mother was a loving caretaker and would make an appropriate guardian on her own. However, the Court also found that the mother’s live-in boyfriend was inappropriately touching Sarah. While the touching didn’t rise to the level of sexual abuse, it was excessive enough to cause harm to Sarah, and her mother failed to stop it.
In light of the boyfriend’s behavior, the Court appointed Sarah’s sister as guardian, despite New Jersey’s statutory preference for appointing a parent over a sibling and Sarah’s own statements that she would prefer her mother.
This case sheds light on how New Jersey courts will appoint a guardian, looking not just at the guardians themselves but at company the guardians keep who may affect the ward. While courts also will respect a ward’s autonomy to the extent practicable, the priority is keeping the ward safe from harm, which is the core purpose of a guardianship.