In re Guardianship of S.H., 2012 Ark. 245, 409 S.W.3d 307 (“S.H. I“) and In re Guardianship of S.H., 2015 Ark. 75 (“S.H. II“) both address the rule that applies when a parent who originally consents to a guardianship later seeks to terminate the guardianship. In S.H. I (decided in 2012), the Arkansas Supreme Court set forth a two-step burden shifting analysis for determining whether to terminate a guardianship in such situations. In S.H. II (which was the second appeal of the same case, decided in February 2015), the Arkansas Supreme Court clarified the burdens of proof that apply to each step in the analysis. S.H. II was a split opinion, however, and for reasons that will be discussed in more detail below, there is some question as to which rule will apply in the future. Therefore, this blog post analyzes the rule from both the majority opinion (which technically appears to be a plurality opinion) and the concurring opinion, along with a note regarding which rule might apply in the future.
I. Legal Background
SH II addresses situations where a parent consents to another person (typically a family member) serving as the guardian of his or her child, and then later that parent seeks to terminate that guardianship. This can arise in a number of circumstances, such as when a parent must leave the country to serve in the military (Witham v. Beck, 2013 Ark. App. 351) or when a parent is overcoming a drug problem (Crenshaw v. Crenshaw, 2012 Ark. App. 695).
A. Abolition of the Material Change in Circumstances Standard
For many years, appellate courts in Arkansas had “equate[d] a petition to terminate a guardianship to a change of child custody among natural parents.” Smith v. Thomas, 373 Ark. 427, 432, 284 S.W.3d 476, 479 (2008). As a result, in order for a parent to terminate a guardianship, the parent was required to prove that there had been a material change in circumstances. Graham v. Matheny, 2009 Ark. 481, 6, 346 S.W.3d 273, 277 (2009). In Graham, the Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that “there is confusion regarding the standard to be used in termination-of-guardianship cases.” Id. at 14, 346 S.W.3d at 280-81. Therefore, the Arkansas Supreme Court took the opportunity to set forth five principles that apply in termination of guardianship cases. Perhaps the most significant of those principles was that “a change-of-custody analysis using the material-change-of-circumstances standard should not be done in termination-of-guardianship cases.” Id. at 15, 346 S.W.3d at 281.
The Court in Graham noted that the guardianship statute, which provides that “[a] guardianship may be terminated by court order . . . [if] the guardianship is no longer necessary or for the best interest of the ward,” is a disjunctive test. See Ark. Code Ann. § 28-65-401(b)(3). Nevertheless, the Arkansas Supreme Court still held that even if there is evidence that a guardianship is no longer necessary, the best interests of the child must still be examined. The concurrence in Graham, written by Justice Hannah, joined by Justice Danielson, made the point that the statute is a disjunctive statate and argued that “[u]pon remand, the circuit court should be ordered to determine whether if for any reason, the guardianship is no longer necessary or for some other reason it is no longer in the best interest of [the ward] that the guardianship continue.” Graham, 2009 Ark. 481, at 19, 346 S.W.3d at 283 (Hannah, C.J., concurring).
The concurrence, in a footnote, made one other point: That the parties had not raised the question of whether the guardianship statute as written violated parents’ constitutional rights to the custody and control of children. Id. at 18, 346 S.W.3d at 282 (Hannah, C.J., concurring). Specifically, the concurrence made reference to Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 Sup. Ct. 2054 (2000), in which the Arkansas Supreme Court had held in a grandparent visitation case that “there is a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.” The Arkansas Supreme Court had also recognized this principle in a grandparent visitation case, holding that “a fit parent is given a presumption that he or she is acting in a child’s best interests.” Linder v. Linder, 348 Ark. 322, 72 S.W.3d 841 (2002).
Less than three years after the decision in Graham v. Metheny was handed down, the Arkansas Supreme Court would address head-on the issue of parental rights in the context of a termination of a consensual guardianship.