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In re Guardianship of Howard

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

January 16, 2019



          Cullen & Co., PLLC, by: Tim Cullen, for appellant.

          Brett D. Watson, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by: Brett D. Watson, for appellee.


         This appeal arises from Sarah Howard Jenkins's[1] petition for guardianship over the person and estate of her mother, Vivian Howard. Vivian appeals the Jefferson County Circuit Court's order requiring Sarah and her sister Risie Howard to work together to immediately obtain a professional evaluation of Vivian's medical condition.[2] We affirm the circuit court's order.

         Vivian is ninety-two years old. She is deaf and partially blind, uses a wheelchair, and has been cared for in her home by her daughter Risie since 2012. In July 2017, Vivian's daughter Sarah filed a petition for guardianship of the person and estate of Vivian, citing Vivian's declining health and inability to manage her finances and care. Sarah alleged that, while her sister Risie had been living with their mother, Risie had transferred a significant amount of Vivian's money to Risie's personal checking account, directed that numerous payments be made from Vivian's accounts for Risie's expenses, and failed to properly care for Vivian. Vivian filed a motion to dismiss on which the court never ruled.

         The original guardianship hearing was set for September 12, 2017, but was continued on a motion filed by Vivian. At the subsequent hearing, held on February 7, 2018, Vivian argued that the petition should be denied because the statutorily required medical evaluation had not been performed. The court stated that the argument was premature. Dr. Robin Perry testified that she has been treating Vivian for approximately two years. Vivian's attorney objected that Dr. Perry's testimony should be excluded pursuant to the doctor-patient privilege, which Vivian had not waived. The court took the argument under advisement. Dr. Perry testified to examining Vivian on March 21, 2017, and testified to Vivian's medical conditions, including moderate-to-severe age-related dementia. Dr. Perry's professional evaluation was entered into evidence as petitioner's exhibit 1.

         Sarah testified about the events giving rise to her guardianship petition. During Sarah's testimony, the court noted the time of day and stated that it was clear that the hearing could not be completed in the time remaining and that it would need to be continued. The court ordered that Vivian remain in Risie's care until the next hearing but said that the rest of the family should have access to Vivian. The court then noted that both the court and the bailiff had concerns about Vivian's current medical condition and stated,

The court security officer is concerned about her. I am concerned about her. I want her taken and evaluated and I want a report back on whether she needs to remain where she is at on Second Street in her home or does she need to be placed in an assisted living facility or a medical wing of a hospital. Based on what I've heard so far, what I see and the court's bailiff's concerns observing her, I'm concerned about her and I want this done. So I want Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Risie Howard, I am appointing both of you to see that your mother gets to a doctor. And if you want to use Dr. Perry, let's just use Dr. Perry.

         The court continued the hearing and issued a written order requiring the sisters to obtain a professional medical evaluation on Vivian the following day, February 8. The court's order required that the evaluation address Vivian's medical condition(s) and provide recommendations as to her future care, including but not limited to continued care at home, full-time nursing-home care, or assisted-living care. Vivian filed a notice of appeal stating that she was immediately appealing this order pursuant to Rule 2(a)(12) of the Arkansas Rules of Appellate Procedure-Civil.

         We review probate proceedings de novo, but we will not reverse a finding of fact by the circuit court unless it is clearly erroneous. Donley v. Donley, 2016 Ark. 243, at 6, 493 S.W.3d 762, 766 (citing Graham v. Matheny, 2009 Ark. 481, 346 S.W.3d 273). A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Id. at 6, 493 S.W.3d at 766. When reviewing the proceedings, we give due regard to the opportunity and superior position of the circuit court to determine the credibility of the witnesses. Id., 493 S.W.3d at 766. However, we give no deference to the circuit court on matters of law. Freeman v. Rushton, 360 Ark. 445, 202 S.W.3d 485 (2005).

         Although Vivian has appealed only the order requiring her to undergo a professional medical evaluation, her first point on appeal attacks the court's subject-matter jurisdiction over the entire case and seeks dismissal of Sarah's guardianship petition. Vivian claims that, because a professional evaluation was not attached to the petition for guardianship, the court had no power to hear the matter or issue the order from which she appeals. She presents the issue as one of subject-matter jurisdiction. We disagree.

         Whether Sarah has fully complied with the statutory requirements[3] for obtaining a guardianship is not a jurisdictional issue, and this challenge is not properly before us for appellate review. Vivian relies heavily on Keenan v. Peevy, 267 Ark. 218, 235-36, 590 S.W.2d 259, 269 (1979), in which the Arkansas Supreme Court held that a probate court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to grant a petition for guardianship that failed to allege that the person over whom the guardianship was sought suffered from any form of mental incapacity. Vivian did not raise lack of subject-matter jurisdiction below, and she never obtained a ruling from the circuit court on the issue. While jurisdictional issues can be raised for the first time on appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court has also explained that "it is only when the lower court lacks jurisdiction in any and all circumstances that the challenging party will be excused from objecting to the jurisdiction in the trial court." Parker v. Sebourn, 351 Ark. 453, 456, 95 S.W.3d 762, 763 (2003). This distinction can be instructive in understanding the holding in Keenan, which was one of the rare cases in which the lower court lacked jurisdiction in any and all circumstances (i.e., there was no circumstance in which the circuit court would have had authority under the statute to enter a guardianship over a person who had only a ...

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