In re Guardianship of Kowalski

Seal of Minnesota
Minnesota Court of Appeals

Decided December 17, 1991
Full case name: In re Guardianship of Sharon Kowalski, Ward
Citations: 478 N.W.2d 790
Prior history: Order appointing Donald Kowalski guardian (April 24, 1984); Minnesota Court of Appeals affirms, 382 N.W.2d 861 (March 4, 1986); Karen Tomberlin named successor guardian (April 23, 1991)
Main Holding
When medical evidence establishes that a mentally incapacitated ward has the capacity to express a preference as to the identity of the ward's guardian, the trial court should give this preference great weight in its guardianship decision.
Court membership
Presiding Judge: Thomas Forsberg
Associate Judges: Gary L. Crippen, Jack Davies
Case opinion
Decision by: Davies
Unanimously joined by: Forsberg, Crippen
Laws applied
Minnesota Statutes §§ 525.551, 525.59

In re Guardianship of Kowalski, 478 N.W.2d 790 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991), was a notable Minnesota Court of Appeals case that established a lesbian's partner as her legal guardian after she became incapacitated following an automobile accident. Because the case was contested by Kowalski's parents and family and initially resulted in the partner being excluded for several years from visiting Kowalski, the homosexual community celebrated the final resolution in favor of the partner as a victory for gay rights.

Facts and prior historyEdit

Sharon Kowalski lived with her lesbian partner, Karen Thompson, in St. Cloud, Minnesota for about four years. Though Kowalski's parents were not aware of the relationship at the time, the couple had exchanged rings and named one another as insurance policy beneficiaries. On November 13, 1983, Kowalski suffered severe brain injuries in an automobile accident involving a drunk driver. The injuries left Kowalski with permanent physical disabilities, requiring her to remain in a wheelchair, and the mental capacity of a four to six year-old child.

Both Thompson and Sharon Kowalski's father, Donald Kowalski, petitioned to be named Sharon's legal guardian in March 1984. With the understanding that she would have visitation rights, Thompson agreed that Donald Kowalski would be named Sharon's guardian. The court's guardianship order, however, gave Donald complete control over visitation. On July 25, 1985, Donald immediately cut off Thompson's visitation rights and moved Sharon from a nursing home near Thompson's home to one further away. Thompson appealed the order, but the appellate court affirmed the order initially, citing testimony by Sharon's family and nursing home staff that Sharon seemed depressed and sad after her visits with Thompson and postulating that it would be in Sharon's best interest to discontinue visitation with Thompson.

At this time, several gay rights and civil liberties groups joined Thompson in her efforts to reacquire visitation rights and acquire the guardianship. Public awareness of the case was increased by local and international attention, including fundraising concerts by lesbian singer and songwriter Ann Reed. In May 1988, a federal judge asked specialists to conduct a study of Sharon to determine whether she had sufficient mental capacity to accurately express her wishes in regard to visitation, and, if so, what her wishes were. The Miller-Dwan Medical Center specialists determined that Sharon did have the capacity to do so, and Thompson was allowed to resume limited visitation in January 1989. In March 1989, Thompson published a book about her experience with co-author Dr. Julie Andrzejewski, titled Why Can't Sharon Kowalski Come Home?

Because of his deteriorating health, Donald Kowalski requested that the court appoint a new guardian in late 1988. Thompson filed an uncontested petition to be named Sharon's successor guardian in August 1989. A hearing on the petition was held in August 1990, and the court deferred deciding on the petition until it could conduct an evidentiary hearing, as a Kowalski family friend, Karen Tomberlin, had contacted Sharon's attorney requesting to testify against Thompson's guardianship. At the evidentiary hearing, Thompson called sixteen medical witnesses who testified about Sharon's mental state, her interaction with Thompson, and her preference in regard to visitation. Three witnesses opposed to Thompson's guardianship, Sharon's sister and two family friends including Tomberlin, also testified. The court denied Thompson's petition on April 19, 1991 and named Tomberlin as Sharon's guardian. Thompson appealed.

The caseEdit

The Minnesota Court of Appeals begins its analysis by citing the applicable guardianship statutes, which provided that the court should make a guardianship decision based on the best interests of the ward. "Best interests of the ward" is defined in the statute, but requires the court to consider the reasonable preference of the ward or conservatee if a preference can be determined.

With the statute in mind, the court stated that Sharon has stated a clear preference for Thompson to be her guardian, citing the study by the Miller-Dwan specialists. The court noted that the three witnesses opposed to Thompson's appointment were all lay witnesses with no medical training. In regard to Thompson's qualifications to serve as a guardian, the court stated that testimony from multiple witnesses established that Thompson had been loving and caring when dealing with Sharon and was able to take care of her on a day to day basis. Finally, the court also addressed the lower court's concern that Thompson was involving Sharon in multiple gay and lesbian public events (as the case had generated considerable media attention) that her family testified she might not otherwise choose to attend. The court said that the lower court's reliance on this in its guardianship decision was misguided, as the record indicates that Sharon enjoyed these events and even received an award at a National Organization for Women meeting.

The court concluded that while the trial court has wide discretion in guardianship proceedings, the court abused its discretion in this case in denying Thompson's petition against the weight of evidence. The court removed Tomberlin from Sharon's guardianship and appointed Thompson in her place.

Effects of the decisionEdit

The Kowalski decision was viewed as a victory for gay rights by the homosexual community.[1] A film, Lifetime Commitment: A Portrait of Karen Thompson, a play, and several books have been written about the case and its place in the overall gay rights movement.[2][3] The case also highlighted the importance of durable power of attorney forms for homosexual couples wishing to name one another guardians in similar situations.

See alsoEdit

Casey Charles, The Sharon Kowalski Case: Lesbian and Gay Rights on Trial (University Press of Kansas 2003) ISBN 0-7006-1266-1


  1. Putting Gay Pride On Parade; Festival Organizers Emphasize Visibility, The Washington Post, June 22, 1992
  2. Lifetime Commitment - A Portrait of Karen Thompson at Rotten Tomatoes
  3. GLBTQ encyclopedia entry on Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski

External linksEdit

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