A South Carolina appeals court rules that a conservator or guardian of an incapacitated person may bring an action for the spousal support and maintenance of the person with the disability. In Dallas Ball Dover v. Nellie Ruth Ball (S.C. Ct. App. No. 2019-001113, July 20, 2022).
During the over 60-year marriage of Mrs. Nell Ball and Mr. Dallas Ball, all the marital assets were in Mrs. Ball’s name. The couple lived separately but remained married after both suffered health issues in 2018. Taking issue with the recommendations of her husband’s physicians that Mr. Ball live in a nursing facility, Mrs. Ball refused to pay for her husband’s care. The Balls’ daughter, Ms. Susan Dover, became her father's guardian.
On behalf of her father, Ms. Dover sued her mother for her father's separate maintenance. Mrs. Ball asked the family court to dismiss the suit, arguing that the claim was "strictly personal" and could only proceed if Mr. Ball expressed a desire for support. She also claimed her daughter had a conflict of interest as a beneficiary of her husband's estate.
After denying Mrs. Ball's motion to dismiss, the family court divided the $3.1 million marital estate equitably between husband and wife. Mrs. Ball appealed. While the appeal was pending, Mr. Ball died, and Ms. Dover became the respondent.
Arguing that an action for separate maintenance is personal, Mrs. Ball relied on Murray by Murray v. Murray, 310 S.C. 336, 426 S.E.2d 781 (1993), which held that a conservator could not bring a divorce action on behalf of the person with a disability unless the individual clearly wanted the marriage to dissolve and had the mental capacity to make this decision.
The appellate court determines that the lower court correctly denied the wife's motion to dismiss the petition for the separate maintenance of her husband.
Disagreeing with Mrs. Ball, the court finds that Murray distinguished divorce actions from property actions. A suit for individual support and maintenance does not require the marriage to end. Acquiring financial aid is not a solely personal decision that one protected by guardianship must make alone. The guardian of an incapacitated person can petition the court for monetary support.
Mrs. Ball's assertion that Ms. Dover had a conflict of interest was also untenable, the court decides. The probate court supervises the conservator, and an independent Guardian Ad Litem, who testified that the trial should go forward, served on the case. As this matter concerns obtaining funding for the father's care, the daughter's position as a potential beneficiary does not require the family court to dismiss the suit.