California Guardianship Case: Suleman v. Superior Court of Orange County, 2010 Cal. App. LEXIS 8 (January 8, 2010)

February 5, 2010

Paul Peterson, an advocate for the rights of child actors, filed a petition against Nadya Suleman, better known as the “Octomom,” seeking the appointment of a guardian of her children to make financial decisions for the children. The petition alleged that Suleman commercially exploits her children and that a guardian would ensure that the children’s financial interests were adequately protected.

The probate court considered that California Probate Code section 1510 permits a relative or other person on behalf of a minor to file a petition for appointment of guardian. The probate court found that, while Peterson had no relationship with the family, there was no statutory requirement that the petitioner be an interested person or have any type of relationship with the minor named in the petition.

The probate court denied Suleman’s motion to dismiss, and issued an order directing the Orange County Social Services Agency to conduct an investigation of the family’s finances and file a report with the court on the proposed guardianship.

Suleman filed a petition for writ of mandate/prohibition to direct the probate court to vacate its order and dismiss Peterson’s petition.

The appellate court looked to the California Supreme Court’s decisions, making clear that the primary consideration for the guidance of the court in appointing a guardian is the best interest of the child, but also considered the right of a parent to the care and custody of his or her children.

The court noted that California law presumes that a parent is competent to care for his or her own children, unless it is shown that the parent is unfit to perform the duties imposed by the relation or has forfeited the right to custody by abandonment of the child.

The court specifically examined the phrase, “other person on behalf of the minor,” and finding no legislative history to assist in the interpretation, held that such a person is one who pleads ultimate facts demonstrating financial misconduct or alleges information sufficient to warrant court intervention.

The appellate court held that, as a nonrelative, Peterson was required to establish standing by showing ultimate facts warranting court intervention, but failed to do so. The petition only alleged the potential for mismanagement of the children’s finances by Suleman, and did not provide any evidence to raise a reasonable inference of wrongdoing.

The court vacated the order for the Social Services Agency to conduct an investigation and provide a report, and issued a writ directing the probate court to issue an order granting Suleman’s motion to dismiss.

This case outlines a middle ground on which to base decisions subjecting a parent to court intervention. The decision maintains a safeguard against exploitation of minors by allowing unrelated third parties to file petitions for guardianship, if they can show sufficient information to warrant such appointment, but also avoids unwarranted harm to parents through the defense against frivolous guardianship petitions and forced release of confidential family information.

Kelly L. Hellmuth is the principal author of this release.