|Jennifer Suzanne Carroll|
The case puts Florida laws governing legal guardianships in the spotlight, and how a probate court's removal of some rights might affect a ward's remaining freedoms. It came as Florida legislators re-examined the guardianship system, long plagued by accusations of corporate greed and policies designed to benefit guardians instead of wards and heirs.
The dispute focused on a ward of the court's right to marry, and asked justices: If permission is required to wed, does marrying without that approval render the marriage void or voidable?
Answering that question Thursday, the justices needed to determine the legislators' intent in crafting a state statute to govern people for whom the courts have taken responsibility through guardianship programs.
That task divided the high court.
In the end, the majority ruled that a ward didn't need to get court approval before marrying, but did need to have the court later ratify that marriage.
"In other words, the ward's ability to enter into a valid marriage depends on court approval," Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote for the majority in a decision issued Aug. 31.
The ruling stemmed from a bid by Glenda Martinez Smith, a woman looking to reinstate her marriage to Alan J. Smith, who had been deemed legally incapacitated. Palm Beach Circuit Judge David French annulled the marriage because Smith wed without court approval.
Marriage is a fundamental right, but courts have the power to invalidate the marriages of people who become wards of the court because of severe physical, mental and other disabilities that prevent them from making their own decisions.
Smith lost the right to contract, but not the right to marry, when he became the court's ward. His wife challenged French's decision, but a state appellate court couldn't agree on whether the trial court's annulment deprived Smith of his "fundamental right to marry."
Just as with the high court, the majority and dissenters in the Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed on the "effect" of the statute.
"This is something that was sorely needed in our state," Martinez Smith's attorney, Jennifer Suzanne Carroll of the Law Offices of Jennifer S. Carroll in Palm Beach Gardens, said. "This opinion is a major step forward in protecting the fundamental rights of incapacitated persons in Florida. … It enforces the Legislature's intent to uphold the incapacitated person's rights to the greatest extent possible."
The closely watched Florida Supreme Court case drew amicus curiae briefs from the Florida Bar's Real Property, Probate & Trust Law Section, its Elder Law Section and the Academy of Florida Elder Law Attorneys.
"It is absolutely now crystal clear that a marriage is invalid if it was entered into with a person who at the time was subject to a guardianship and had their right to contract taken away. The court did clarify that the marriage can only be legitimized by seeking subsequent court approval," said longtime Miami probate lawyer Michael Schlesinger of Schlesinger & Associates, who was not involved in the litigation. "This ruling bolsters the intent of the guardianship law to protect the incapacitated from financial abuse. However, the system in my opinion still needs further revamping by the state Legislature and prosecution of offenders by law enforcement to ensure that the generation of fees never outweighs the best interests of the wards."
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Divided Supreme Court Rules on Ward's Right to Marry