In re ANO

Decision Date18 May 2004
Docket Number No. 980, No. 97, No. 340, No. 918., No. 99
Citation91 P.3d 646,2004 OK 33
PartiesIn re A.N.O., a minor child. Nathaniel O'Neal and Christina O'Neal, Appellants, v. Floyd Lee Ogle, Jr. and Margaret Ann Ogle, Appellees.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Hugh V. Rineer, Leonard & Rineer, Tulsa, OK, for Appellants.

James D. Sicking, Jr., Assistant Public Defender, Tulsa, OK, for the Minor Child.

Luke Goodwin, Tulsa, OK, for Appellees.

EDMONDSON, J.

¶ 1 We are asked by Nathaniel and Christina O'Neal, parents of A.N.O., to determine whether the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction when it granted visitation rights to their child's grandparents subsequent to the termination of the grandparents' guardianship over her. The O'Neals additionally contend that if the visitation order is not void for lack of jurisdiction, it should nonetheless be reversed as it is an unconstitutional intrusion into their family life in violation of guarantees of the federal and state constitutions. We find that the trial court was without jurisdiction to issue the visitation order, and we vacate the opinion of the Court of Appeals and reverse the judgment of the trial court.

¶ 2 In related cases the O'Neals brought appeals from orders in the same trial court action entered subsequent to the filing of this appeal. Case Number 99,340 concerns an order sustaining grandparents' "Motion to Enforce" the previously entered visitation order that was the subject of this appeal, and Case Number 99,918 challenged the trial court's award of attorney fees in the amount of $20,000.00 against parents for resisting the grandparents' efforts to enforce the visitation order. Pursuant to Rule 1.27(d), Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules, 12 O.S.2001, Ch. 15, App. 1, we sua sponte consolidate these appeals under the earlier case number for disposition by a single opinion.1

¶ 3 We previously granted certiorari to the O'Neals, respondents/appellants, to consider the issue of the termination of the court's jurisdiction over the subject matter of the guardianship which had been before it. The matter presents a question of law concerning the interpretation and application of statutes and is before us for de novo review.

¶ 4 The pertinent facts are these. When A.N.O. was five months old, her maternal grandparents, Floyd and Margaret Ogle, petitioners/appellees, filed a petition for guardianship of her person and estate as well as a petition seeking an emergency ex parte temporary order of guardianship based on conditions which they alleged placed A.N.O.'s physical and emotional welfare at risk of immediate harm. The trial court granted an emergency ex parte temporary order naming the Ogles the "temporary guardians" of A.N.O. The following month, the Ogles and the O'Neals appeared before the court and entered into an agreed order that named the Ogles "special guardians" of the person of A.N.O. until further order of the court, and the court issued them letters of "Special Guardianship." The order also granted A.N.O.'s parents visitation rights and set out the terms for those visitation periods. A.N.O.'s mother and father were not married at the time of her birth on February 15, 1999; however, they were married by the time the guardianship ended.

¶ 5 In August, 2001, following five days of hearings with all parties present, the trial court determined that conditions had changed and A.N.O. should be returned to the custody of her mother and father. The order also granted the O'Neal's motion to terminate the Ogles' special, or temporary, guardianship and denied the petition filed by the Ogles for guardianship which was still pending before the court. The order of the court provided: "the Court finds in favor of the Respondents and hereby denies the guardianship petition and orders the minor child returned to the Respondents ... The Petitioners' Letters of Guardianship are hereby terminated and each is hereby discharged."

¶ 6 The trial court encouraged the parties to enter into an agreeable visitation schedule for A.N.O.'s grandparents to see her. The parties could not agree and the court began in November of 2001 a series of orders which compelled the O'Neals to allow visitation at specified times. The O'Neals had argued that the trial court was without jurisdiction over this issue, but the court asserted it had "continuing jurisdiction" over the issue of grandparental visitation rights with A.N.O. through the guardianship proceeding and under the provisions of 10 O.S. Supp.2000, § 5, the grandparental visitation statute. The court found § 5 gave it the authority to impose orders for grandparents' visits which it found to be in the child's best interest, even if the parents objected.

¶ 7 On appeal, the O'Neals argued that when the trial court terminated the guardianship proceeding, returning the custody of their daughter to them and dismissing the guardians, its jurisdictional power and authority over their child and their family ended. They argued the court was therefore without lawful power to award visitation with A.N.O. to the Ogles, her former guardians, and that no statutory authority from any other source, including § 5, gave the court continuing jurisdiction to impose visitation against their wishes. The Ogles supported the position of the trial court and the Court of Civil Appeals upheld it. We agree with A.N.O.'s parents.

¶ 8 The procedures for the court's appointment of a guardian and termination of that appointment are governed by the provisions of the Oklahoma Guardianship and Conservatorship Act, 30 O.S.2001, §§ 1-101, et seq., and relevant sections are set forth below. Section 1-113 concerns the appointment of a guardian and commencement of the court's jurisdiction and provides in pertinent part:

A. A guardian of ... a person residing in this state, who is a minor ... may be appointed in all cases by the court as provided in this title.
B. After the service of notice in a proceeding seeking the appointment of a guardian or other order, in subsequent proceedings pertaining to the guardianship of a ward and until termination of the proceeding, the court in which the petition is filed has exclusive jurisdiction to determine:
1. the need for a guardian or other order ...
(Emphasis added.)

The powers of the court over the guardian are set forth in § 1-114, and the relevant portions provide:

A. In all cases the court making the appointment of a guardian has exclusive jurisdiction to control such guardian in the management and disposition of the person and property of the ward.
B. The court has jurisdiction over guardianship proceedings, and has the following powers, which must be exercised in the manner prescribed by statute, to:
1. appoint and remove guardians for minors...
2. issue and revoke letters of guardianship;
The legal effect of letters of guardianship is established by § 1-123 as follows:
"Letters of guardianship are evidence of the transfer of the management or administration of all assets, or the part thereof specified in the letters, of a ward to the guardian. An order terminating a guardianship is evidence of transfer of the management or administration of all assets subject to the guardianship from the guardian to the ward.
The termination of a guardianship is controlled by § 4-804 which provides:
The guardian of [a] ... minor may be discharged by the court when it appears to the court, on the application of the ward or otherwise, that the guardianship is no longer necessary.

¶ 9 It is fundamental that jurisdiction is the authority by which courts take cognizance of and decide cases, and that the three elements necessary to the validity of a court order are jurisdiction of the person, jurisdiction of the subject matter and the power of the court to decide the particular matter and render the particular judgment at issue. Roth v. Union Nat. Bank of Bartlesville, 1916 OK 823, 160 P. 505. Subject matter jurisdiction is essential. It is the power and authority of a court to hear and determine causes of the kind in question. Thus, a court has the jurisdiction to try an action when it has jurisdiction of the persons and the cause is the kind of a cause triable in such court, and the power to render any rightful judgment therein. Board of Trustees of the Firemen's Relief & Pension Fund v. Brooks, 1937 OK 245, 67 P.2d 4. Since subject matter jurisdiction concerns the competency of the court to determine the particular matter, it cannot be waived by the parties or conferred upon the court by their consent and it may be challenged at any time in the course of the proceedings. Shaffer v. Jeffery, 1996 OK 47, 915 P.2d 910. Subject matter jurisdiction is invoked by the pleadings filed with the court. State ex rel. Turpen v. A 1977...

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