This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).






In Re:

Ryan David Anwiler, Ward.


Filed September 5, 2000

Reversed and remanded

Parker, Judge*


Itasca County District Court

File No. P6992156


Charlotte Neigh, 25886 Spruce Drive, Bovey, MN 55709 (for appellant/ward);


Rudy Anwiler, 773 Elizabeth Avenue, Grand Rapids, MN 55744 (respondent pro se);


Sara-Beth Swanson, Dimich Law Office, 16 Northeast Third Street, Grand Rapids, MN 55744 (for petitioner below)


            Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Amundson, Judge, and Parker, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


Appellant Ryan Anwiler, an incapacitated person who has reached age 18, challenges a district court order appointing his father as his guardian.  Before Anwiler reached the age of 18, a judgment dissolved his parents’ marriage and awarded custody of Anwiler to his father.  Based on this judgment, the district court later made Anwiler’s father the guardian of both his person and his estate.  Anwiler challenges that determination, alleging (1) the district court erroneously based his guardianship decision on Minn. Stat. §  518.54, subd. 2 (1998); (2) the district court failed to consider the factors set out at Minn. Stat. § 525.539, subd. 7 (1998), which address the best interests of a ward; and (3) the evidence does not support the district court’s findings and that the findings, even if supported by the evidence, do not support the district court’s conclusions of law.  We reverse and remand.



In the appointment of a guardian, the best interests of the ward are paramount.  In re Guardianship of Fingerholtz, 357 N.W.2d 423, 426 (Minn. App. 1984), review denied (Minn. Feb. 6, 1985).  The scope of review of the district court’s broad discretion to select a guardian is clear abuse of discretion.  In re Guardianship of Stanger, 299 Minn. 213, 215, 217 N.W.2d 754, 755 (1974); Fingerholtz, 357 N.W.2d at 426.  While the district court has wide discretion in guardianship matters, this discretion is not boundless, and the Minnesota guardianship statutes are specific in their requirement that the district court make factual findings on a guardian’s qualifications.  In re Guardianship of Kowalski, 478 N.W.2d 790, 796-97 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Feb. 10, 1992).

In this guardianship proceeding, the district court ordered that father continue to have sole custody of Anwiler “as set forth in the [dissolution] Judgment and Decree dated April 15, 1991.”  The district court order is founded on the court’s conclusion of law that “[b]ased on the definition of child in Minn. Stat. § 518.54, the original custody order of the Dissolution Judgment and Decree still applies and will continue to apply so long as the ward is incapable of self-support.”  The district court’s memorandum clearly states his understanding that the definition of “child” in Minn. Stat. § 518.54, subd. 2 (1998), applies to custody as well as support issues.  The district court found that Anwiler is incapable of self-support and therefore is a “child” under the statute and will remain a “child” until he is capable of self-support.  Applying the definition, the district court ordered the original custody order to continue indefinitely.

The legislature limited the application of the definition of “child” to the support section of the dissolution statute by including the following clause: “[f]or the purposes of sections 518.54 to 518.66, the terms defined in this section shall have the meanings respectively ascribed to them.”  Minn. Stat. § 518.54, subd. 1 (1998).  Sections 518.54-.66 deal with maintenance, child support, and property.  The portion of the statute that applies to custody orders is Minn. Stat. § 518.17 (1998).  Because guardianship is not a maintenance, support, or property matter, the district court erred in borrowing the definition of “child” from section 518.54 and applying it to this guardianship proceeding.  Although there is no definition of “child” in the custody section of the statute, custody determinations apply only to the parties’ “minor children.”  See Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 3 (providing for custody orders for parties’ “minor children”).  Moreover, a person generally becomes an adult under the law at age 18.  Minn. Stat. § 645.45 (1998).  As an adult, Anwiler is no longer subject to the custody order from his parents’ dissolution.  Applying the wrong legal standard is fundamental error, but it is reversible error only if it results in prejudice to the other party.  Kornberg v. Kornberg, 542 N.W.2d 379, 387 n.3 (Minn. 1996).

The guardianship order clearly shows that the district court in this case deferred to the custody order:  (1) findings 6-10 refer to the dissolution proceeding; (2) the district court concluded that the custody order still applies; (3) the court found that the ward is not endangered by his hygiene problems, using the standard for custody modification; (4) the court then found “[b]ecause there is neither evidence of endangerment nor a motion for a change of custody, the Respondent retains custody of Ryan”; (5) the district court stated “to have one parent be the custodial parent under the dissolution file and the other parent as guardian in the guardianship file would be unworkable”; and (6) the court further stated “[i]t is in the best interests of the ward to leave well enough alone.”

Because Anwiler is an incapacitated adult, there is no reason that a person other than his childhood custodian cannot logically serve as his guardian.  The district court’s reliance on the custody order was misplaced and the resulting appointment of father as guardian was therefore based on improper factors.  Because the majority of findings supporting the guardianship determination concern the custody order, mother’s petition for guardianship was prejudiced by the district court’s legal error in applying Minn. Stat. § 518.54.  Based on the district court’s legal error, we reverse and remand.

On remand, the district court should proceed entirely under the guardianship statute, and it is necessary that specific findings be made as to each factor prescribed by Minn. Stat. § 525.539, subd. 7(1)-(3) (1998).  Minn. Stat. § 525.551, subd. 5 (1998); see Kowalski, 478 N.W.2d at 796-97 (requiring specific factual findings on statutory factors to determine proposed guardian’s qualifications); In re Conservatorship of Lundgaard, 453 N.W.2d 58, 63 (Minn. App. 1990) (holding “‘general,’ conclusory findings” insufficient to meet statutory mandate); In re Conservatorship of Kocemba, 429 N.W.2d 302, 306 (Minn. App. 1988) (“The court must specifically address the reasons for its determination that the appointment of the person is in the best interests of the [ward].”).

The district court found Anwiler did not have sufficient capacity to express a preference concerning who should be his guardian, and thus discounted Anwiler’s statement that he preferred to live with his mother.  Because the issue of Anwiler’s capacity was recognized by the court but not raised by the parties, there was very little evidence on the record from which the district court could reach a conclusion about Anwiler’s capacity.  On remand, the record must be reopened to take evidence on Anwiler’s capacity to express a preference concerning his guardianship.  Although the guardianship statute does not provide a standard for determining capacity, the district court may find guidance in the statutory standards for competency to testify at trial.  See Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(f) (1998) (providing “[p]ersons of unsound mind * * * are not competent witnesses if they lack capacity to remember or to relate truthfully facts respecting which they are examined”); Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(m) (1998) (declaring “[a] child under ten years of age is a competent witness unless the court finds that the child lacks the capacity to remember or to relate truthfully facts respecting which the child is examined”); see also State v. Kahner, 217 Minn. 574, 580, 15N.W.2d 105, 108 (1944) (notingcourt should conduct preliminary inquiry to determine witness’s competency and “[i]f it appears from the inquiry that the witness understands the obligation of an oath and is capable of correctly stating the facts to which his testimony relates, he is competent in fact and should be permitted to testify”).  If the district court determines Anwiler is capable of expressing a preference, it should be done in camera to reduce the stress of expressing a preference between his parents in their presence.

Because the district court’s guardianship decision was tainted by its legal error in applying Minn. Stat § 518.54 to the guardianship determination, we reverse and remand for specific findings consistent with the factors enunciated in Minn. Stat. § 525.539.

            Reversed and remanded.

* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.