California probate courts may appoint guardians ad litem (“GALs”) to represent the interests of those who cannot speak for themselves, including minors. While Probate Code section 1003 provides for the appointment of GALs, it does not speak to their removal. A recently published opinion, Chui v. Chui (2022) ___Cal. App. 5th ___ (“Chui II”) attempts, in a very limited holding, to rectify this procedural deficiency by establishing that minors have the right to request removal of their GALs.

Less than a year ago, the Court of Appeal published Chui v. Chui (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 873 (“Chui I”) involving Jacqueline and Michael Chui (“Chui children”) and their GAL, Jackson Chen, who was appointed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court. No longer minors, the Chui children have returned, this time to seek Chen’s removal.

Chui Children litigate with their GAL

We discussed the Chui I litigation in a prior post. Here, we pick up where the Chui I decision left off.

When the Chui children were in elementary school, their extended family litigated the terms of the grandparents’ substantial trust. After six years of litigation, the parties settled. However, because the settlement compromised the Chui children’s future interest in their grandparents’ estate, GAL Chen had to sign off on the settlement. He did. He then petitioned the probate court for orders approving his fees and those of his attorney.

The probate court issued orders approving the settlement agreement. The Chui children then lawyered up with different attorneys and appealed that order. They also objected to the GAL’s petition. They filed separate petitions to remove the GAL on the basis (among others) that they no longer needed a GAL because they were 16 and 17 years old. The probate court threw out the Chui children’s removal petitions and disqualified their counsel, reasoning that because the Chui children were minors, they could only appear through their GAL. But of course, GAL Chen would not be inclined to seek to remove himself, especially while his fee petition was pending.

Chui Children appeal

The Court of Appeal allowed the Chui children to appeal even though their GAL had not authorized the appeals. No case law addressed whether a minor could seek to remove her GAL, so the appellate court looked to guardianship law.

The court reasoned that if minors in guardianship proceedings can seek to remove their guardian, then a minor with a GAL should also be able to seek the GAL’s removal. The court held that minors, who are capable of making informed decisions, can petition the court directly to remove their GAL. And, because the minor can petition to remove their GAL, they also may have independent legal representation to prosecute that removal.

Wary that this holding could be interpreted expansively, the court expressly limited the decision to establishing the right of a minor, capable of making informed decisions, to petition for the removal of his or her guardian ad litem and to appear in court with the aid of retained counsel for that purpose. No more, no less. While section 1003 does not speak to the who, what, when, where, or how of a GAL’s removal, the Chui II court addressed only who could seek the removal. And in doing so, the court opened the door to an entirely different issue.

But when are minors capable of making informed decisions?

Legal age limitations are set by legislatures and seem somewhat arbitrary. You have to be 18 to vote, gamble, or serve on a jury, but 21 to purchase and consume alcohol or recreational cannabis. Generally speaking, you must be 16 to drive a car, and 18 to operate a motorcycle. With parental and court consent, a minor of any age can marry in California.

The Chui II court allows minors to petition the court if they are “capable of making informed decisions.” This begs the question . . . just when is a minor capable of making informed decisions about his or her legal interests? The appellate court provides lower courts with no standard, three-pronged or otherwise, to guide them in making this determination. Should a court start with the presumption of capacity, in accord with Probate Code section 810, or should the court require minors to show the maturity to make decisions, and if so by what measure? It appears lower courts are left with “[you] know it when [you] see it.”

Takeaways

Chui II establishes the right of a minor to seek to remove their GAL, thus increasing the accountability of GALs as well as their exposure to litigation. GALs who represent high school age kids will have extra reason to seek their input and approval. Where will oversight of GALs go next? Perhaps Chui II will lead the Legislature to develop rules for GALs to follow when performing their duties. The Legislature already took a step in that direction when it passed SB 1279, as discussed in our most recent post.