Knowing when to initiate guardianship proceedings for a loved one can be a difficult and personal decision.  When it comes to substance abuse, those proceedings can enter a grayer area than proceedings involving dementia, injury, or developmental disability.  At what point is an addict or alcoholic incapacitated?  What happens during moments of sobriety?  In In re Guardianship of Esterly (unpublished), the Court of Appeals of Minnesota dealt with some of these difficult questions.

Dennis G. Esterly suffered from a variety of medical issues all exacerbated by chronic alcoholism.  Esterly frequently repeated a cycle in which he would be transported to a hospital, discharged to a nursing home, checked out of the nursing home, resume drinking, and then repeat the cycle by being transported back to the hospital.  A district court concluded that Esterly was incapacitated and required a guardian.  Esterly challenged the appointment of a guardian for, among other reasons, that chronic alcoholism cannot support a finding that a person is incapacitated.  Esterly argued that alcohol use – even if a poor choice that may lead to unhealthy lifestyle decisions – is a lifestyle choice borne of free will.

The Minnesota appellate court noted that none of the parties had identified any case law addressing chronic alcoholism as a basis for appointment of a guardian.  In affirming the district court’s opinion, the appellate court noted that “this case presents a very close call.”  But, the appellate court reviewed Minnesota case law outside of the guardianship context to recognize that chronic alcoholism is an issue with which the courts have grappled.  Furthermore, the Minnesota Commitment and Treatment Act touches specifically on guardianship as a possibility for chemically dependent individuals.  Given the appellate court’s deferential standard of review, the court’s understanding of the nature of chronic alcoholism, and the record evidence that Esterly did not intend to stop drinking and could not make responsible decisions about his own care while he was drinking, the appellate court found that the district court was within its discretion in finding that Esterly was incapacitated.

The opinion, however, did draw a concurrence.  One judge questioned whether an unlimited guardianship is proportionate and necessary to remedy the limited issue of alcoholism.  The judge went on to note that his concurrence was not a dissent because Esterly did not argue that the district could should have ordered only a limited guardianship.