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In re Guardianship and Conservatorship of Feistner

Court of Appeals of Iowa

October 10, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF THE GUARDIANSHIP AND CONSERVATORSHIP OF LORI FEISTNER, Ward-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Peter A. Keller, Judge.

         Lori Feistner appeals from an order establishing an involuntary guardianship and conservatorship. REVERSED AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.

          Daniel M. Northfield, Urbandale, for appellant.

          Kenneth Michael Steffen, Moline, pro se guardian/conservator.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Bower and McDonald, JJ.

          MCDONALD, JUDGE.

         This case arises out of the appointment of a guardian and conservator for Lori Feistner. On appeal, Feistner contends the district court erred in appointing her a guardian and conservator.

         The petitioner in this case is Lori's brother, Kenneth (Mike) Steffen. Steffen filed this petition for guardianship and conservatorship because of his concern for his sister's well-being. At the time of trial, Feistner was fifty-six years old. She was married to her husband of twenty-six years, Roger Feistner. However, Roger was in the process of seeking a divorce due to Feistner's erratic and aggressive behavior. Roger had communicated his intent to seek a divorce to Feistner and to Steffen. Steffen testified he sought the guardianship and conservatorship primarily to help Feistner transition during the period of divorce and help her with her financial situation.

         Feistner's erratic and aggressive behavior is a symptom of her mental-health condition. Approximately fifteen years prior to trial, Feistner begin to display symptoms of mental illness. Her symptoms increased over time, including mania that would keep her up at nights and result in aggressive or confrontational behavior toward others. Eventually, Feistner was diagnosed with bipolar, type I, disorder. She was prescribed medication for her condition, but she frequently failed to take her prescribed medication because of the way it made her feel and its adverse side effects, including weight gain. In the decade prior to trial, Feistner had been civilly committed on six occasions. The duration of her commitments ranged from several days to several weeks.

          Our review of this case is for the correction of legal error. See Iowa Code § 633.555 (2017) (providing actions shall be triable at law); In re Conservatorship of Leonard, 563 N.W.2d 193, 195 (Iowa 1997) (stating conservatorship actions are reviewed for errors at law); In re Guardianship of S.K.M., No. 16-1537, 2017 WL 5185427, at *3 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 8, 2017) (concluding guardianship proceedings are reviewed for errors at law). The district court's findings are binding on us if supported by substantial evidence. See Leonard, 563 N.W.2d at 195. Evidence is substantial if a reasonable person "would accept it as adequate to reach the same findings." In re Conservatorship of Deremiah, 477 N.W.2d 691, 693 (Iowa Ct. App. 1991). We note the district court in this case made no specific findings of fact on any of the issues. Instead, the district court stated it reviewed the evidence and found "by clear and convincing evidence that the allegations of the said Petition are true and material and have been fully sustained by the evidence offered."

         The petitioner has the burden of proving the guardianship and/or conservatorship is necessary and must do so by clear and convincing evidence. See Iowa Code § 633.551(1), (2). "Clear and convincing evidence is more than a preponderance of the evidence and less than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." In re L.G., 532 N.W.2d 478, 481 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995). "It is the highest evidentiary burden in civil cases." In re M.S., 889 N.W.2d 675, 679 (Iowa Ct. App. 2016). "It means there must be no serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of a particular conclusion drawn from the evidence." Id. Because of the ward's significant interest in managing her own affairs, we cannot merely rubber stamp what has come before; it is our task as a court of review to ensure the petitioner came forth with the quantum and quality of evidence necessary to prove his case. Cf. In re Guardianship of Hedin, 528 N.W.2d 567, 573 (Iowa 1995) ("Recently, several courts have agreed with commentators that a guardianship 'involves significant loss of liberty similar to that present in an involuntary civil commitment for treatment of mental illness.'" (quoting In re Guardianship of Reyes, 731 P.2d 130, 131 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1986)).

         We first address the question of whether the petitioner proved the grounds necessary to establish an involuntary guardianship. The district court may establish an involuntary guardianship for an adult "whose decision-making capacity is so impaired that the person is unable to care for the person's personal safety or to attend to or provide for necessities for the person such as food, shelter, clothing, or medical care, without which physical injury or illness might occur." Iowa Code § 633.552(2)(a); accord Hedin, 526 N.W.2d at 581. This requires evidence

showing that the ward or proposed ward is unable to think or act for himself or herself as to matters concerning the ward's personal health, safety, and general welfare. In addition, the district court's findings of fact based upon this evidence should support the powers conferred on the ...

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