The Resolution of Interstate Adult Guardianship Disputes in New York
March 29, 2021
Given the travel restrictions that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unlikely that many recently-commenced adult guardianship proceedings have led to jurisdictional disputes in courts in different states. Pre-pandemic, however, in anticipation of commencing adult guardianship proceedings, parties moved the subjects of those proceedings from one state to another, presumably to gain a strategic advantage in forthcoming guardianship disputes. Indeed, this happened so often that a majority of states in the Nation enacted a uniform law in order to address it. This blog post addresses the New York version of that uniform law, and a New York case applying it to an interstate guardianship dispute, both of which are likely to be relied upon as pandemic-related travel restrictions ease, and interstate guardianship disputes become more common than they are at the moment.
The Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act (“UAGPPJA”) is intended to “resolve jurisdiction issues in guardianship proceedings when two states have connections with the individual over whom guardianship is sought” (see Matter of J.D.S., 70 Misc3d 556, 558 [Sur Ct, New York County 2020]). UAGPPJA does so by “providing a more streamlined and predictable process, saving state funds and conserving judicial resources, and reducing the possibility for abuse and expense of the alleged incapacitated person and that person’s family and caretakers” (see id.; Schwaber & Kafer, P.C. v Alpizar, Index No. 157599/2020, 2021 WL 408231, at *2 [Sup Ct, New York County Feb. 5, 2021]). A majority of states in this Country have adopted UAGPPJA (see J.D.S., 70 Misc3d at 558).
As effective on April 21, 2014, New York’s version of UAGPPJA is codified in Article 83 (“Article 83”) of the Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”) (see MHL § 83.01). Article 83 applies to adult guardianships that parties commence under Article 81 of the MHL and Article 17-A (“Article 17-A”) of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) (see MHL § 83.15; SCPA § 1758).
In Matter of J.D.S., New York County Surrogate Rita Mella rendered what appears to be the first reported decision addressing whether a court in New York, or another state, was the appropriate forum for a guardianship dispute concerning a person under a disability (see J.D.S., 70 Misc3d at 557-65). The proceeding concerned J.D.S., a thirty-five year-old respondent whose parents were divorced (see id.). Prior to 2016, J.D.S. lived with his mother for the majority of his life, including a significant period of time in North Carolina (see id.). In 2016, J.D.S. moved to New York to live with his father and stepmother (see id.). In 2018, J.D.S. left New York to live with his mother (see id.). In July 2018, the father filed a guardianship petition in North Carolina, which prompted the mother to do the same and ultimately gave rise to a consolidated guardianship proceeding in that state (see id.). In September 2018, the father and stepmother commenced an Article 17-A guardianship proceeding, and petitioned for “a determination that New York is J.D.S.’s home state”, in New York County Surrogate’s Court (see id.). In November 2018, a North Carolina court clerk advised the Surrogate’s Court that a North Carolina court had determined (a) North Carolina to be a “significant-connection state” under UAGPPJA, and (b) New York to be J.D.S.’s “home state” (see id.). Surrogate Mella then held a hearing to determine whether to “exercise jurisdiction over this guardianship proceeding or if North Carolina . . . is the more appropriate forum” under Article 83 (see id.).
Based upon the evidence presented at the hearing, Surrogate Mella determined that North Carolina was a more appropriate forum for the guardianship dispute involving J.D.S. (see id.). In doing so, the Surrogate relied upon the factors set forth in MHL § 83.23: (a) J.D.S.’s “expressed preference to stay in North Carolina”; (b) the absence of any evidence of abuse or neglect toward J.D.S., or any suggestion that “North Carolina was less capable of protecting J.D.S. from harm” than New York; (c) J.D.S. had spent significantly more time in North Carolina (with his mother) than in New York (with his father and stepmother); (d) J.D.S. was located significantly closer to the North Carolina guardianship court than the New York Surrogate’s Court; (e) J.D.S.’s assets were modest, and it would be less burdensome for J.D.S. to travel to a North Carolina guardianship court than to the New York Surrogate’s Court; (f) most of the witnesses who would testify at a guardianship hearing were located in North Carolina; (g) either the New York Surrogate’s Court or the North Carolina guardianship court would be well equipped to promptly determine whether to grant a guardianship of J.D.S.; (h) although the New York Surrogate’s Court had more recent familiarity with J.D.S., both the Surrogate’s Court and the North Carolina court had guardianship petitions concerning J.D.S. before them; and (i) nothing in the hearing record undermined a New York Guardian ad Litem’s conclusion that the North Carolina courts “are bound to play a more robust monitoring role than their New York counterparts under SCPA Article 17-A” (see id.). Accordingly, pursuant to Article 83, Surrogate Mella declined to exercise jurisdiction over the New York Article 17-A guardianship proceeding (see id.).
As the first reported decision in which a New York court applied Article 83 to determine the appropriate forum for an adult guardianship dispute, J.D.S. provides an excellent roadmap for guardianship courts and practitioners who are confronted with interstate guardianship disputes. Indeed, J.D.S. illustrates the factors that a New York court must consider in evaluating whether New York, or another state, should preside over an adult guardianship proceeding.
 Article 83 also sets forth the process for transferring a guardianship granted in one state to another state (see MHL §§ 83.31 and 83.33). This blog post does not address the guardianship transfer issue.