Conflicts over guardianship, visitation rights spark passage of first-of-kind law in Iowa

When they were unable to visit their brother due to opposition from his legal guardian, family members in the Iowa town of Cedar Rapids turned to their local state senator for help. And as Iowa Sen. Rob Hogg soon learned, that local family’s story was far from an isolated one; conflicts over visitation and guardianship rights were occurring across the state. His response was to introduce SF 306, a bill that ultimately received unanimous approval in the legislature and was signed into law in April.

The measure seeks to fix a law that many saw as too ambiguous to address conflicts that can occur between the legal guardian of an adult ward of the state and others. Under the recently enacted changes, a legal guardian cannot deny visitation to an adult ward from other people unless the guardian can establish “good cause” for such denial in court. The guardian, though, maintains the authority to establish the time and place of such visitation, provided that these requisites are “reasonable” (the courts determine what is “reasonable”).
Under Iowa’s previous law, when individuals were unable to visit a loved one due to the decision of a legal guardian, the only remedy was to remove the legal guardian through litigation — often an unattractive alternative for both sides. Iowa’s new law seeks to circumvent costly court procedures, Hogg says, and to only involve courts under very specific circumstances.
In their testimony in support of SF 306, Iowa nursing homes and other groups noted that the problem of visitation was surprisingly widespread. For instance, a legal guardian would place restrictions on visitations while the ward was in a nursing home, and it was then the facility’s responsibility to enforce these visitation preferences.
Hogg says SF 306 generated little opposition and quickly garnered bipartisan support. (The University of Iowa’s College of Law and College of Public Health provided Hogg with legal assistance and counsel.)
Iowa’s actions also captured national headlines.
The issue of guardianship and visitation rights has become much more visible in recent months because of a high-profile dispute between the wife and children of the late Casey Kasem. Kerry Kasem, daughter of the radio celebrity and actor, has been advocating for changes similar to those made under Iowa’s new law.
In every state, too, the state’s elderly population is on the rise, and as a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office report notes, that means a larger number of citizens who “may become physically or mentally incapable of making or communicating important decisions for themselves.” As result, state laws on guardianship and visitation are likely to impact many more families.