Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Up To Your Neck In Debt? In Foreclosure?


Then you may be mentally deficient. At least according to a recent unpublished decicion of the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Under MCL 700.5401 a probate court may appoint a conservator for a person if:
The individual is unable to manage property and business affairs effectively for reasons such as mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power, or disappearance.
Interpreting that provision, the Court of Appeals wrote:
As respondent notes, when a statutory term is not defined by the statute, this Court construes the term according to its plain and ordinary meaning. Cox v Flint Bd of Hosp Managers, 467 Mich 1, 18; 651 NW2d 356 (2002). Resort to dictionary definitions is acceptable and useful in determining ordinary meaning. Id. “Mental” is defined as “of or pertaining to the mind.” Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1995). “Deficiency” may be defined as “the state of being deficient; lack; insufficiency.” Id. In addition, “deficient” is further defined as “a person who is deficient, esp. one who is mentally defective.” Id. Based on these definitions, “mental deficiency” as used in the statute could plausibly refer to someone who has simply made consistently bad decisions with respect to his or her property, without being afflicted by some form of officially recognized mental illness or incapacity, as respondent argues.
Brickman v Brickman, No. 278403 (Mich. App., Oct. 16, 2008).

I am initially skeptical of the court's separation of the term "mental deficiency" into two separate terms. This can be problematic - consider the interesting results you could produce by defining "ice cream" in a similar fashion. Contrast what you find if you actually try to define the term "mental deficiency":
mental deficiency - n. See mental retardation. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).
That leads us to:
mental retardation - n. Subnormal intellectual development as a result of congenital causes, brain injury, or disease and characterized by any of various cognitive deficiencies, including impaired learning, social, and vocational ability. Also called mental deficiency. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).
A similar definition of "mental deficiency" can be found in Merriam-Webster and WordNet.

The fact that the term "deficient" could be used to "a person who is deficient, esp. one who is mentally defective" is not instructive. Applied in this context, this becomes a circular argument that, as somebody who is mentally deficient may be informally called "deficient", any person who is in any way deficient in any manner relating to their mental functioning is "mentally deficient". (And how far do we take this type of reasoning? Should we interpret the word "confinement" in the statute to reference the onset of labor in a pregnant woman?)

Further, consider what the court's interpretation means for the interpretation of the statute. The statutory language suggests that a court ruling on a conservatorship petition should find both that "The individual is unable to manage property and business affairs effectively" and that there's a reason for that incapacity "such as mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power, or disappearance." Under the new ruling a probate court need not find that there's a reason for the incapacity: "The individual is unable to manage property and business affairs effectively because the individual has not managed his or her property and business affairs effectively."

As I read the statute, making bad financial choices is not of itself grounds for the appointment of a conservator, nor should it be. But... now it is.

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