Walterscheidt v. Hladik (In re Walterscheidt)

Decision Date14 June 2022
Docket NumberCASE NO. 119,049
Citation512 P.3d 354
Parties IN RE the GUARDIANSHIP OF: Connie WALTERSCHEIDT Kent Walterscheidt, Appellant, v. Christy Hladik, Appellee.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Grace K. Yates, Holmes, Yates, and Johnson Law Firm, Ponca City, OK, for Appellant

Randy J. Long, Long, Claypole & Blakely Law, PLC, Enid, OK, for Appellee

Frank Austin, Okarche, OK, for Ward


Facts & Procedural History

¶1 The hearing in this case was conducted on February 20, 2020. At the time, Husband and Wife had been married for nearly 34 years. During the entirety of this period, the couple resided on their family farm near the City of Hennessey, Kingsfisher County, Oklahoma, where Husband was engaged in a full-time farming operation. During their marriage, the Waltersheidts had two biological children together, Georgia Walterscheidt and Mary Milacek. In addition, Husband legally adopted Wife's child from a previous relationship, Christy Hladik, when she was five years old. Georgia and Christy are also residents of Hennessey, while Mary resides just north in nearby Waukomis, Oklahoma.

¶2 In addition to assisting in the farming operation, Wife was employed as a phlebotomist with Oklahoma Blood Institute for roughly twenty-five years. In approximately July of 2016, Wife began struggling with certain aspects of her work, including operating OBI equipment. On August 23, 2017, Husband took Wife to see a neurologist, Dr. Salomi T. Salins, to investigate her escalating memory problems. The records from this visit indicate that Dr. Salins did not believe Wife was suffering from dementia

; rather, they suggest Wife was more likely experiencing depression, anxiety and possible marital difficulties. Dr. Salins referred Wife for additional testing and scheduled a follow-up appointment. In September or October 2017, Wife took time off from OBI and never returned to work.1 Wife again saw Dr. Salins with her daughter Christy in October 2017. Notes from that visit again reveal Dr. Salins had doubts that "[Wife] truly has a neurodegenerative disorder."2 Instead, Dr. Salins believed Wife was experiencing underlying depression. However, following a scan of Wife's brain, Dr. Salins' records from the following month denote that early onset Alzheimer's dementia was the probable diagnosis. Dr. Salins recommended further evaluations such as spinal fluid testing and a thorough neuropsychology assessment. She also encouraged Wife to apply for disability benefits; stop using the farm tractor; and limit any driving to familiar areas during daylight hours. At a one-year follow-up appointment, Dr. Salins documented a significant decline in Wife's cognitive assessment score.

¶3 Husband was not present for the November 9, 2017, appointment with Dr. Salins.

However, Wife was accompanied by her sister Debbie Gritz. When Debbie dropped Wife off at the couple's home after the appointment, she informed Husband of the Alzheimer's diagnosis. Debbie also relayed Dr. Salins' instructions that Wife should no longer utilize farming equipment, drive on the highway, or drive at night. Husband became upset and asked Debbie to leave the property. She refused to leave and Husband told Debbie "[i]f [he] wasn't a gentleman, [he] might knock [Debbie] out."3 Despite the threatening statement, there was no evidence in the record that Husband had ever been physically violent with Wife or any other members of the family. In fact, the only evidence in the record relating to physical violence revealed an incident between Wife and Debbie, Christy, and Georgia. Debbie acknowledged a confrontation occurred between Wife and the three women after they attempted to discuss Wife's guardianship. During this episode, Wife became agitated and the women subdued her, which left bruising on the inside of Wife's arms.4 Debbie admitted that Wife did not want to discuss issues she felt were personal family issues with her sister and daughters, yet the group of women still physically detained her and forced her to discuss these matters. In addition to Debbie's testimony, Wife's injuries and the altercation were both documented in a DHS report.5

¶4 The day before Dr. Salins made her preliminary diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's dementia

, Debbie took Wife to execute a Durable Power of Attorney, giving authority over Wife's affairs to Debbie and Wife's other sister, Vickie Elmer.6 The DPOA did not contain a clause nominating a guardian. Three days later, Debbie applied for Social Security disability benefits on behalf of Wife, and the application was later approved with an established onset date of September 2017. With Debbie's assistance, Wife opened a bank account at Central National Bank for the deposit of Social Security payments. Neither Debbie, Vickie, nor Wife informed Husband about the DPOA, the bank account, or that Wife had been approved for disability payments. Banks records indicate Social Security payments were deposited into the Central account beginning on April 25, 2018.

¶5 At the end of 2018 and early part of 2019, Husband discovered the existence of Wife's Social Security disability payments, the Central National account, and the DPOA. By March 2019, there was more than $16,000.00 in Wife's account. Debbie withdrew most of the funds from the Central account in October 2019, because she believed Wife was attempting to make withdrawals. She deposited the money with a different bank and placed both her name and Wife's name on the account; additionally, Debbie removed Wife's ability to make withdrawals on her own.7

¶6 Wife was again referred for an appointment with Sarah Coats, Ph.D., this time by Charles Ferrell, M.D.8 According to Wife's medical records, Dr. Ferrell asked Dr. Coats to evaluate Wife's cognitive status, including her competency to revoke the DPOA and her capacity to execute a new durable power of attorney. During the evaluation in April of 2019, Wife initially told Dr. Coats she had no recollection of executing the November 2017 DPOA. However, when interviewed alone, Wife said she remembered signing the DPOA but had no idea what was contained in the document. After interviewing both Wife and Husband and conducting testing, Dr. Coats reported that it was her professional opinion that Wife was not competent to revoke the DPOA. Dr. Coats noted that Wife's "dementia is significant enough at this point to impact competence;" she additionally felt Wife was no longer competent to manage her affairs, revoke her DPOA, or execute any new legal document.9 Dr. Coats recommend appointment of a legal guardian, explaining that based on the "complicated psycho-social stressors and apparent family discord ... a legally appointed surrogate is recommended."10

¶7 On September 26, 2019, Husband filed a petition seeking appointment as guardian over Wife's person and property. Christy objected to Husband's appointment and requested that she be named the guardian. In her objection and petition for appointment, Christy alleged that Husband was not fit to serve as Guardian because he was guilty of emotional abuse and repeatedly ignored doctor's orders and advice. Wife was represented separately by court-appointed counsel. Five witnesses were called to testify: Husband, Wife, Mary, Debbie, and Christy.

¶8 Husband testified that he reluctantly filed for guardianship after discovering the DPOA, disability payments, and bank account. Husband noted that he did not learn about the DPOA until hospital staff brought the document to him while Wife was preparing to undergo a medical procedure in early 2019. He further testified that funds from Social Security disability were intended to supplement Wife's loss of income associated with her inability to work, yet Debbie's actions made them inaccessible to either Husband or Wife.11 Husband explained that for almost 34 years, he and Wife had "always been a team," and he had made a commitment to her in good times and bad. He further testified that he loved Wife and in the two years following Wife's diagnosis, the two have been almost inseparable. Together, they worked on their farm, fed the animals, babysat their grandson, and socialized in town. Husband testified that the pair have never been happier than they are now.

¶9 Husband did acknowledge he and Wife had a less than perfect marriage and at times the pair had yelled at each other. During direct examination, he denied being verbally abusive; however, he did concede that he and Wife "both holler[ed] at one another."12 All of the witnesses denied any physical violence between Husband and Wife. At the time of the hearing, Husband did not believe Wife was totally incapacitated. Medical records of both Dr. Salins and Dr. Coats suggested limiting Wife's use of farm equipment, but neither advocated total abstention from driving. Husband testified that it was not until January 2020 that Dr. Salins recommended Wife refrain from driving any vehicles. Although he had previously allowed Wife to continue driving farm machinery and help with farming operations until late 2019, Husband testified that he would prevent her from driving a car or farm equipment in the future based on the advice of Dr. Salins.

¶10 Wife testified unequivocally that she wanted to continue living on the farm with Husband and, if she were required to have a guardian, she would like it to be her Husband. Wife testified that she was no longer driving, but felt competent to do some house and farm work. Husband, Wife, and Christy all testified that they believed it was good for Wife to continue helping on the farm, taking care of her grandson, and socializing with her friends in Hennessey. Additionally, Wife's appointed attorney advocated for Husband to be appointed guardian because he also believed that it was in Wife's best interest to remain on the farm with Husband. Wife denied that Husband had been verbally abusive, but acknowledged that she and Husband both had gotten upset and raised their voices. Wife...

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