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In re Guardianship of B.E.W.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

March 8, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF GUARDIANSHIP OF B.E.W., Minor child,
v.
KIMBERLY STEFFENSMEIER and JEFF STEFFENSMEIER, Intervenors-Appellees. JAMES FORD and CHRISTIAN FORD, Appellants,

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Jones County, Lars G. Anderson, Judge.

         Former guardians appeal the district court's decision to appoint successor guardians for a minor child. AFFIRMED.

          Christopher M. Soppe of Pioneer Law Office, Dubuque, for appellants. Rachel R. McCrate of Gray, Stefani & Mitvalsky, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellees.

          Deborah M. Skelton, Walford, guardian ad litem for minor child.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Tabor and Mullins, JJ.

          VOGEL, Presiding Judge.

         James and Christian Ford, former guardians of a minor child, appeal the district court's decision to transfer the guardianship to Kimberly and Jeff Steffensmeiers, the maternal aunt of the child and her husband. Agreeing that the transfer was in the child's long-term best interests, we affirm.

         Background Facts and Proceedings.

         B.E.W. was born in 2009 to Sarah Weaver, n/k/a Sarah Webster, who struggled with many issues that affected her ability to care for B.E.W. In 2011, those issues resulted in her agreeing to a temporary guardianship of B.E.W. with the Fords.[1] The child was fortunate that the Fords and the Steffensmeiers had a good relationship, such that she bonded with both couples and was comfortable in both homes. Because Webster's life took a different path, including living out-of-state for a time, preventing Webster from seeing B.E.W. regularly, the Fords decided in July 2014 to petition to have Webster's parental rights terminated on the grounds of abandonment under Iowa Code section 600A.8(3) (2014). Meanwhile, in September 2014, Webster sought to terminate the guardianship, but that matter was continued to allow the termination proceeding to be resolved. After a hearing on the Fords' petition to terminate Webster's parental rights, the district court found by order dated December 8, 2015, the guardians, while having provided good care for the child, had prevented Webster from having contact with her child and denied the petition.

         In January 2015, the Steffensmeiers filed a combined motion to intervene in the guardianship proceedings along with seeking to have the guardianship transferred to them. In July 2015, the court granted their motion to intervene. In December 2015, the guardianship matter came on for a two-day trial. Webster sought to terminate the guardianship or, in the alternative, have the guardianship transferred to the Steffensmeiers; the Fords sought to continue on as the child's guardians; the Steffensmeiers sought to have the guardianship transferred to them. The district court denied Webster's application to have the guardianship terminated and found it was in the best interests of the child to transfer the guardianship to the Steffensmeiers. The Fords appeal.[2]

         Scope of Review.

         This case was heard by the district court in equity originating as a petition to terminate a guardianship. While that issue is not on appeal, the remaining issue of the transfer of guardianship was also tried in equity. See Iowa Code § 633.33 ("[A]ll other matters triable in probate shall be tried by the probate court as a proceeding in equity."). Thus, our review is de novo. Further, because we are reviewing the transfer of guardianship, which is in essence a child-custody dispute, the determinative factor is the best interests of the child. In re Guardianship of Knell, 537 N.W.2d 778, 780 (Iowa 1995); In re Guardianship of Sams, 256 N.W.2d 570, 572 (Iowa 1977).

         Transfer of Guardianship; Best Interests of the Child.

         The fighting issue on appeal is whether the district court was correct in transferring the guardianship of B.E.W. from the Fords to the Steffensmeiers. The Fords argue that B.E.W.-who was just six years old at the time of trial- had been in their care for more than four years and was bonded to them. Transferring guardianship from them, in their opinion and as supported by their witnesses, would be unnecessarily disruptive and lead to further distress in this young child. As B.E.W.'s mother, Webster conceded she had no bond with the child but believed B.E.W. should live with the Steffensmeiers in the hope a mother-daughter bond could be established. Realizing that she may never be in a position to parent the child, Webster's fallback position was for the Steffensmeiers to be B.E.W.'s guardians and eventually adopt her. The Steffensmeiers, who had frequently cared for B.E.W. during agreed upon visitation weekends, were bonded with her. They believed the child needed greater stability ...


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