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In Re Estate of Suggs

OPINION FILED NOVEMBER 20, 1986.

IN RE ESTATE OF REGINALD SUGGS, JR., A MINOR.


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Willie Whiting, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE JOHNSON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Pharell Mae Lewis petitioned the circuit court of Cook County to appoint her as guardian of her nephew, Reginald B. Suggs, Jr., a minor. Reginald's grandmother, Gladys Williams, objected to Lewis' guardianship petition and cross-petitioned the court to appoint her as guardian of Reginald. At the close of an evidentiary hearing, the trial court awarded custody of Reginald to Williams and appointed her as his guardian. Lewis appeals, contending that (1) the trial court lacked jurisdiction to appoint Williams as guardian because Reginald's father (Lewis' brother) nominated her as Reginald's guardian in his will, and (2) even if the trial court possessed jurisdiction to determine guardianship, its appointment of Williams was not in the best interest of Reginald.

We reverse and remand.

The record shows that Reginald Suggs, Jr., was born on December 29, 1981, to Linda Suggs and Reginald Suggs, Sr. (hereinafter Suggs). Linda died less than two weeks after giving birth to Reginald. Suggs then asked Lewis, his sister, to live with him and his infant son. She did so and cared for Reginald until the date of the trial court's guardianship order.

On October 4, 1982, Suggs executed a valid will that states, in pertinent part, as follows:

"SECTION TWO

In the event that my son, REGINALD B. SUGGS, JR. has not attained the age of 18 at the time of my death, I hereby nominate and appoint my sister, PHARELL MAE LEWIS, of legal age and an Illinois resident, to serve as guardian over the estate and person of my son, REGINALD B. SUGGS, JR., and I direct thas [sic] she shall serve in said capacity without bond or surety."

Suggs died on February 1, 1984. Lewis filed a petition for guardianship of Reginald on or about February 21, 1984. She filed an amended petition on May 11, 1984, in which she stated that the approximate value of Reginald's personal estate was $5,000 and that of his real estate was $55,000. Lewis also estimated the amount of Reginald's anticipated gross annual income and other receipts to be $13,700.

Williams is Reginald's maternal grandmother. On March 22, 1984, she filed an objection to Lewis' guardianship petition and cross-petitioned the court to appoint her as the minor's guardian. Williams alleged, essentially, that (1) Lewis failed to mention in her guardianship petition that Reginald inherited from his father real and personal property; (2) she and Reginald's stepsister, Christiana Williams, visited Reginald twice per week, but after Suggs' death, Lewis denied them access to Reginald despite Williams' requests on the telephone and in person; and (3) it would be in the best interest of Reginald that the court appoint her as his guardian for various reasons, including the fact that she is Christiana's guardian and, therefore, Reginald would "have the most normal approximation of a family under the circumstances." On that day, the trial court granted Williams visitation of Reginald.

The trial court held an evidentiary hearing wherein it heard testimony from witnesses that Lewis and Williams presented. Lewis' witnesses were herself, a brother, a sister, and a baby-sitter who occasionally sat for Reginald. They all testified, essentially, that Lewis cared for Reginald, that she would continue to do so, and that they knew of no reason for not appointing her as his guardian.

Williams testified on her own behalf and called Lewis as an adverse witness. Williams testified concerning her allegations that Lewis denied her access to Reginald after Suggs died, despite her requests to visit him. Williams also testified that when she had visited Reginald, he appeared to her to be slow in learning speech and toilet training for a child of his age. Williams also presented stipulated testimony as to her good character and fitness.

After hearing the evidence, the trial court appointed a guardian ad litem and directed the social services department of the circuit court of Cook County to investigate Reginald's physical and mental condition, the households of Lewis and Williams, and other relevant factors in the court's determination of Reginald's guardianship. The court also ordered continued visitation of Reginald by Williams.

On September 11, 1984, having received the report of the social services department, which reached no substantive conclusions, the trial court held a hearing wherein it heard the report of the guardian ad litem. She reported that she visited each household and observed how both Lewis and Williams interacted with Reginald. She found that Williams was sincere and genuine. The guardian ad litem further reported that Williams did not believe Lewis to be a bad person; rather, Williams simply wanted custody of Reginald.

The guardian ad litem's observations of Lewis were equally positive. She concluded that the trial court's appointment of either Lewis or Williams as Reginald's guardian would be in his best interest. She further stated that Reginald would be in no danger or experience no substantial injustice by being in the custody and guardianship of either Lewis or Williams. The guardian ad ...


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