Print Print

Parents Lose Bid To Bar Son With Special Needs From Marrying


Text Size  A  A

It’s going to take a lot more to keep a 27-year-old group home resident from marrying the woman he loves than a court ruling and his parents’ objections.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals, pointing out that people with court-appointed guardians are allowed to marry in the state, ruled this week that a lower court failed to meet the burden of proof when it barred Michael O’Brien from someday exchanging wedding vows with the woman he has been dating for more than three years.

Describing marriage as a “fundamental right” afforded to anyone who has the “sufficient mental capacity” to understand it in contractual terms, the appeals panel said the district court must review the case anew because it did not look deeply enough into O’Brien’s ability “to understand the meaning, rights and obligations of marriage.”

The case is not about whether O’Brien would make a good husband. O’Brien’s attorney Steve Beseres acknowledged soon after the ruling that “Mike is a nice kid with significant problems. But they’ve allowed people in prison and all sorts of different situations [to marry].”

Judith and Timothy O’Brien have been guardians for their son since 2004, when the court cited his “serious, persistent mental disorder,” namely struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mild intellectual disability and being bipolar.

Judith O’Brien testified in the lower court about Michael having shot out cabin windows with a BB gun, once grabbing the steering wheel of a group home van and other misbehavior while he was a minor.

As guardians, the O’Briens take care of all of Michael’s daily living needs, as well as his medical and psychological care. Michael has said he gets along fine with his parents, but he feels they put too many limitations on him.

A psychiatrist on behalf of the parents said Michael functions at a level below an IQ of 71 and his “overall broad independence” is that of someone slightly less than 10 years old.

Michael’s attorney said it’s his client’s hope that he and his fiancée, a client in a Twin Cities special-needs program, can someday live in a group home for couples. Meantime, Michael sees her a couple of times a week at her residence and stays over once a month.

The O’Briens’ legal challenge is preventing the couple from setting a wedding date, Beseres said.

The appeals court ruling notes that Michael’s fiancée described their relationship in testimony as “very loving,” while Michael contributed that “he is in love with her.”

It concluded “Because the district court did not make sufficient findings to establish that Michael lacks the capacity to understand the meaning, rights and obligations of marriage, we reverse the district court’s declaratory judgment that Michael lacks the competence to marry …”

Tim O’Brien expressed disappointment with the appeals court ruling, noting that his son has had self-control difficulties for many years that sometimes erupted into “incoherent rage.”

Although he didn’t reject the notion that Michael might someday be well enough to wed, Tim O’Brien said, “At this point in time, in my opinion, he lacks the ability to comprehend what a marriage contract entails.”

Beseres said he believes his client’s parents have their heart in the right place but are on shaky legal ground.

“I don’t think anybody has any ill will,” the attorney said. “You do anything you can for your kids.”

More in Living »

Search Jobs

Post a Comment

Disability Scoop welcomes comments, though only a selection are published. In determining which comments will appear beneath a story, we look for submissions that are thoughtful and add new ideas or perspective to the issues addressed within the story. Please keep your remarks brief and refrain from inserting links.

Comments (38 Responses)

  1. Cathy says:

    I’m on Michael’s side and can’t believe the parents are denying him the right to marry. But, I guess if other parents of “normal” children had a choice that a lot of times they would deny their child to marry an individual also but that is part of what makes it so wrong. I think probably over 1/2 the couples that marry don’t under the meanings, rights and obligations involved in the marriage contract yet I don’t remember anyone ever asking if we did. I also know of people who have married that have much more significant problems than what Michael appears to be dealing with and again, these people were “normal” and not having their right to marry taken away. I realize that marriage is a contract and apparently Michael has had the right to make contracts taken away in the guardianship. My son with DS functions at the pre-school level and my dream is that he find that special person to share his life with. He has grown up in a family and understands the dynamics. To deny my son the right to share his life with someone would be inhumane.

  2. Katherine says:

    He is severely mentally challenged with an IQ of 71. That alone makes him incapable of understanding the meaning of a marriage. He also has outbursts of rage. Is he dangerous to his fiancée? He can’t take care of himself with the functionality of a 10 year old. How could he care for anyone else? A wife? It’s great for them to have a relationship if they want one, but he at least is more of a 10 year old than a man. Do we let 10 year olds marry normally? Do we consider them able to judge when they are in love and ready to wed for a lifetime? Bipolar disorder is treatable, but mental handicaps that affect IQ, a measure of the ability to understand and reason, are not. He is forever mentally impaired.

  3. vmgillen says:

    This is wrong on so, so many levels…

    not least of which is the requirement to understand a contract. This standard has been around since the 1500s, when it was used to bar “idiots” from making wills. . .

    So, anyone who cannot understand a contract is an idiot? or is it just anyone who consults a lawyer?

    But let’s just put the material implications on the side, and take a good hard look at veiled eugenics, eh?

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

  4. autismobserver says:

    The message is dont let our kids to reproduce lest they pass on their “bad” genes- oh the horror

  5. vmgillen says:

    @Katherine: what is the meaning of marriage? For many people, it seems to me it has more to do with the wedding ceremony than anything else… once, it meant arranged marriages – a practice which continues to this day. Once, it was only between a man and a woman. Once, it gave the husband license to beat the wife… None of these points has anything to do with IQ, btw.

    How can anyone weigh in on someone else’s being in love? Finally, how does this effect you, personally, that you feel you should have a say?

  6. Sherrie says:

    A person with an IQ of 71 is not severely mentally challenged! IQ tests are not the only measure of intelligence!!! Mental health issues are common and not a reason for someone to not be allowed to marry.

  7. Anne Hansen says:

    If you take out the Intellectual disability from the list of his diagnoses this story might be quite different. Too bad. People with intellectual disabilities are treated very unfairly even by their own parents/families.
    @Cathy… I agree with your statement, “I think probably over 1/2 the couples that marry don’t under the meanings, rights and obligations involved in the marriage contract yet I don’t remember anyone ever asking if we did” I know I certainly didn’t understand when I married at age 18.

  8. Tom says:

    Good grief a 71 IQ does not give him the ability to understand marriage? Says who? He can vote if he wants to with that IQ, he can’t get married? MR means slow, does not mean they have no capacity to understand or learn.

    His anger outbursts noted are no different than people with 100 plus IQs have.

  9. michelle says:

    I think that he should be allowed to marry. Everyone wants love. I think his parents are looking at the control they will lose. Be it control of his life decisions or his money and benefits. I would love for my daughter to find the man that she loves. She is disabled. I would not deny her.

  10. Andi says:

    This is a case of a little information, inaccurate to boot, is a dangerous thing. An IQ of 71 is above the intellectually disabled “line”, putting it in the low average range on most bell curves. An IQ of 50 is considered “severely intellectually disabled”. It is also a single measure that is supposed to be used with a variety of other assessments to determine an individual’s abilities to learn, care for themselves, and live independently. There must be consideration given to the whole person, their strengths and weaknesses, before making judgement as to their ability to understand. With appropriate transition services there are individuals with much more severe disabilities than described here that are caring for themselves. I certainly don’t want to discount the parents’ perceptions of their child from my desk chair and think it is a shame for anyone else to do so, especially when using inaccurate information to form such a strong opinion about another person’s rights. Please get ALL of the facts before supporting or condemning.

  11. Margaret says:

    Cabral He should not be allowed to marry, needing a conservitor period

  12. Margaret says:

    This is unbeleable a man with a iq of 71 is a child in a mans body, the parents
    have enough troubles and just want to stop some more 71 iq babies coming in
    the world who they would be stuck taking care of. Any one unfit to live on his
    or her own and needing a coservitor should not be allowed to marry and should
    be sterlized. Period and the same for Criminals in Prison or death row.

  13. angie says:

    85-115 is the average range on the bell curve, with 100 being average, so 71 is not low average, 85 is.

  14. Sue says:

    I believe both parties have valid points. The parents probably are worried about his past behaviors and also may be worried that his fiancée may become pregnant. Who would take care of their child? They themselves need a great deal of assistance. I have a child who is 21 and has an IQ of 49. I would let him marry but I would worry about the sexual consequences of that relationship. People who are not personally taking care of an adult special needs person really have no clue as to the amount if care that is involved with a mentally challenged person. It is exhausting and expensive. The parents have valid concerns. The court just said that the lower court must go back and determine if he does have the capacity to understand what marriage is. I think they should also determine if he can understand consequences of marriage.

  15. Katherine says:

    If he isn’t capable of living outside a group home, which is the case here, then he isn’t capable of committing to any contract. The meaning of marriage is to enter into a lifelong contract. I also consider that he could be dangerous to his wife if he has outbursts of rage. Are they violent outbursts? Bipolar disorder is not the same as any typical person, which I do not associate with intelligence at all. I retain my strong opinion. In no manner does not being wed prevent him from reproducing. It isn’t eugenics.
    However, I also do not consider someone able to care for himself outside of a group home able to care for children. He could reproduce, but likely the state would raise the children through foster care. That is not always the healthiest option for a child. There is more to consider than the whim of one person or the possibility that his parents are controlling. I doubt that continuing to pay for his living and watch him struggle with bipolar disorder is something they enjoy unless they are particularly cruel by nature.

    Note: The average IQ is 100 with Albert Einstein’s being only in the 160’s. A small difference quantitatively is a huge difference qualitatively. Legal definitions are not the only type of information.

  16. tamar R. says:

    This is yet another area where there is unfair scrutiny of the mentally challenged. If we look at marriage in general, it would seem that there are many men who can’t control their anger or express anger in appropriate ways. Michael and his fiancee hope to live together in a group home with other married couples. So, it seems they recognize their abilities. This is like the other couple who could not attend the same day program because, “oh heavens the other consumers” ……… Stupid because everybody was at their commitment ceremony!

  17. Keeper of the Keys says:

    @ Andi…all excellent points. We do not have enough information to either condemn or support this young man’s desire to marry; or his parent’s desire to not see that happen. I don’t think anyone is denying that he loves his fiancee, or that he would make a good husband. It seems to me that this young man’s parents are his appointed guardians for certain reasons. If he was able to support himself (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially, etc.), he could become his own guardian, and perhaps that would improve the future outlook of him being able to marry.

    I really think that his parents are looking out for his and his fiancee’s best interests. Of course his parents want him to be happy, in love and with someone who loves him back. What parent wouldn’t want that for their child? I wonder what the fiancee’s guardian’s thoughts on this issue are.

    I’m curious how Michael and his fiancee would work out the living arrangements. The group homes that I have worked in that were designated for “special needs clients” did not support clients without “special needs”. A “special needs” group home was only for “special needs” clients. Perhaps that is not the case in Minnesota.

    I feel badly for everyone involved in this issue. What a sad situation.

  18. Bridget says:

    Anyone who has read this article , quite possibly has a personal reason to read disability scoop. My son is developmentally delayed and I would not change a thing. He plans on driving and he plans on getting married some day and I fully accept it. What makes anyone of us different, because we are not smart enough or have feelings and dreams as “normal” people. My son is far better than a lot of people that I have met in my life time and I wish Michael the best and much love and happiness. His frustration with outbursts may be because he longs to be “normal”. How would any “normal” person feel if they were questioned by just trying to satisfy their own dreams and desires.

  19. Nancy says:

    Anyone who has never been the guardian of a disabled adult has no right to condemn these parents. We don’t know the capacity of the girlfriend. Is she disabled? Will the parents now be in a position to care for not one, but TWO adults with disabilities? What happens when the parents are no longer in good enough health to provide care? What happens if a baby comes along? Are the two young people able to care for the infant, transport it to doctor appointments, prepare meals, etc.? Will the parents have to step in at an advanced age and be responsible for then raising their grandchild? Will they be able to do that? Or will the young couple have to seek government supports for their care and financial assistance? As guardians, the young man’s PARENTS must consider all these questions. How do I know? Because I am currently facing these same issues with my adult disabled son, whom I love more than life itself. And because I love him, I have to consider his future, what will happen to him after I am gone, and who else has his best interests at heart. It isn’t as simple as “Oh, how sweet. They are in love and want to get married. And these nasty parents are saying no. How dare they?” Sounds to me like these parents are facing reality.

  20. howard miller says:

    The concept of mental age (10 year equivalent) is one that is blessedly almost gone except in probate courts for some reason. IQ is still valid only in the eyes of those who choose to believe it is a valid measure (please see Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man; 1981). Is there any other group which must prove itself capable before acquiring constitutional protections? Think about it. Did Katherine and Tim have to establish their capacity before they could be wed or bear children? Pick any measure for success in parenting or marriage (domestic and/or child and/or sexual abuse; divorce if you can’t think of one); can anyone with an IQ of 71 or below do worse than the status quo?

  21. freda says:

    I see a lot of comments condemning the guardians of this young man, but who are we to judge, we don’t know the full facts, there could be many other underlying issues involved. The young man has rights but does he understand full implications of his choices. he obviously needs a lot of support at this time in his life. Things are not always so black and white, I have a niece on paper she ticks all the boxes of capacity, and the understanding of what’s going on etc, Unfortunately due to her in ability to understand the full implications of her actions and lack of life skills she has had four babies taken from her. she does not have the ability to care for them safely, there is no way she could ever look after herself or have a married life that we would presume as being a normal relationship. every relationship she has had she allows the man to abuse her and take advantage of her. Boy have we had some battles with social workers who are only to willing to tick boxes, fill in forms and say she is OK and has capacity. so please don’t judge unless you know the full facts not just what you read on paper.

  22. Sam says:

    This probably has more to do with protecting the parents’ assets than anything else. If they die, and leave their estate in trust to their son, and he marries, she will be entitled to half of it should the marriage fail.
    Or, they are truly worried about his propensity to rage/violence. Of course, he wouldn’t be the first husband to beat his wife.
    I suspect the parents are coming from a good heart, but are seriously misguided. Being allowed to be with someone you love is a pretty basic human right. My son is “severely” intellectually disabled, with Down syndrome and an IQ of 45, but he is well and truly capable of falling in love living with a wife, with support, and being a good partner in so many ways. There is no reason he should be barred from marrying one he loves, I would hope that the guidance if those around him will mean he would not rush into that kind of decision, but if he did, he certainly wouldn’t be the first the marry in a hurry and later divorce (or not). Why should he be denied the right to do stupid things. Everyone else does stupid things.

  23. Rosella A Alm says:

    The Supreme Court of the United States has decided the I.Q. is not the only deciding factor in determining whether a person with a disability is incapable of a reasoned action. Michael is not a”nice kid,” he is a man. He is a man who loves a woman and he and the woman he loves have the right to solemnize their love in the bonds of matrimony.

  24. Denell Miles says:

    I am a parent and legal guardian of a son with the same IQ and issues stated here.He is married to his high school special needs sw eetheart with an IQ of 56 . They concieved a young son in 2009 his name is James
    The issue is not ability to understand contract. The issue is attraction and caring on their level to each other. YES IiT IS HARD. ! I WOULD DO IT AGIAN. THERE ARE many things that need tk happen for this population and our resources are not set up for it. I would be happy to chat and talk to you about it.There is not enough time or room here. :)

  25. Denell Miles says: …says this is my contact info I hope they leave it so I can help

  26. merry barua says:

    if michael and his fiancee both want to get married its no one else’s business.
    people get married for all kinds of crazy and unsustainable reasons. no one butts in to prevent them from doing so. incoherent rage?! just check out many ‘normal’ marriages where spouses are beaten to pulp and children are emotionally scarred. ‘good’ neighbours keep mum cause its none of their business.
    if michael has had self-control difficulties when young, that perhaps was due to being controlled and not being allowed a say in his own life. happens often with those with intellectual disabilities and also those with autism. happens with plenty of regular kids too.
    parents do want the best for their child. but sometimes what we believe is the best may not be what our children want.
    the minnesota court of appeals has upheld michael’s human right. the world needs more judgements like this one. hope this is how courts in india would act too.

  27. Daisy says:

    My 22 year old wants to marry her 24 year old boyfriend — not urgently, but that’s her dream. They both have mild I.D. He lives with his parents, and she lives in a group home due to severe behavior issues. They only see each other for a few hours every couple of months due to distance.

    She wants to marry him even though he shops around on Facebook for other girls. He spent a year in jail, and is now facing jail again for shoplifting with some of his old jail buddies. There are one or two other minor charges. On top of that, the guy sent her $100 to buy a new cell phone, but didn’t tell her until later that he’d stolen the money by vandalizing some kind of cash machine. (The cops don’t know about that.) She doesn’t understand, doesn’t believe, or doesn’t care that his “gift” makes her an accessory after the fact.

    Fortunately, the boyfriend is too preoccupied with his legal troubles to contemplate marriage any time soon. But what if ….? Knowing what I know, I think it would be irresponsible of me, as guardian, to allow my daughter to contract a marriage with this fellow. What do you think?

  28. Romans says:

    this is so sad let him marry

  29. Mary Jane says:

    What happens if they do get married and have children — who will care for them? This guy can’t live independently, he’s in a group home. How can he be a good dad? Oh! I know! Let’s pretend that plugging in services will somehow make it all OK.

  30. Heather says:

    I agree with Cathy. How many people really understand the meaning, rights and obligations of a marriage contract? I can say that I sure didn’t when I married the first time and no one took me to court to try to stop me. Folks sentenced to life in jail for murder and other heinous crimes are permitted to marry, kids having kids are permitted to marry, same sex couples are permitted to marry, an 18 year old can marry a 90 year old and the list can go on and on and on. How about we stop being pessimistic and start educating people on the principals of marriage and then helping their marriages be successful by supporting each other. Even though my husband and I are of “normal” IQ we have and need a church family and biological family to help us manage through the every day ups and downs of marriage. It seems that is what Michael and his fiancee need too. They need to be afforded the right to marriage and then the support system to help them as they go through the everyday ups and downs.

  31. Katie says:

    The headline should read, “Disabled man wins right to marry”.
    The story is about him, not his parents. FFS.

  32. tegeemil says:

    Acting like a 71 IQ means that he is incapable of learning new skills or the concept behind complex ideas is just wrong. I am currently facilitating a psychoeducational group around healthy sexuality for folks with I/DD and the problem isn’t that they can’t understand—it’s that no one has actually taken the time to present the information in a concrete way that makes sense to them. Sometimes it takes longer and can be frustrating, but there is no reason why this young man cannot understand the complexities of marriage. Also, this is a 27 year old man. He is an adult with adult experiences who wants an adult relationship. He is not a child. And since when do people need to be married to have sex and babies? Adults have every right to have a healthy and consensual sex life, including those with disabilities. It’s all about education and support! Give them the tools they need to make informed choices. Lastly, parents are wonderful people, and are particularly well-meaning in the disability community. However, guardianship should not mean that you get to call all of the shots for your adult child. Not saying this is the case here, but I have met many people with disabilities whose parents had guardianship, and I was completely baffled how the court could have signed off on it. Someone having a guardian is not necessarily a good marker of decision-making capacity.

  33. Lauren says:

    Wow, Margaret. Nice of you to tell everyone they need a hysterectomy or vasectomy if the have to have a legal guardian and/or live in a group home. I have an IQ over 100 but because of family circumstances/the nature of my disability, legal guardianship is something my dad’s considered. I also may need to live in some kind of group home, again, due only to the nature of my disability. Should I be sterilized and not allowed to marry as well?

  34. DangerWoman says:

    I am a real life Singing Superheroine and an avowed disability civil rights activist with Aspberger’s syndrome/Autism, who can pass for non-disabled very easily, who has been courting a person on the same
    Wavelength since 2002, who overcame his autism to serve in the US Navy grownups with great honor in Operation: Desert Storm.

    He plays the role of a Jedi Healer in the Disney/Marvel/ABC/Star Wars universe named Josef Hal, but in real life, he works for Direct TV, which wants to get married to AT&T.

    In 2010, at my annual karaoke concert at DragonCon, I had the courage to do something very brave and adult, right in front of all my fans, I popped the question, asking him to marry me and he said yes!

    The biggest challenges I will be facing will be meeting my future in laws, which include a mother who thinks she is a 10 star General, his evil father and evil stepmother, some gay and lesbian relatives and a loving niece and nephew who would ask if they could keep me and make me their aunt.

    I also want to talk to you, Margaret, about a few things.

    Margaret, did you ever think that people with disabilities are human beings?!?
    Did you ever think we have civil rights?!?
    Don’t you know that people with disabilities have been literally pardoned by the US Supreme Court and
    Three Presidents, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush, Junior (BLECH! YICK! PTOOIE!) and Mr. Obama himself?!?
    Don’t you know that we have a right to marry, as per The Americans With Disabilities Act, The Olmstead Pardon Of The Disabled and The Individuals With Intellectual And Developmental Disabilities Act of 2010?!?

    By the way, Margaret, it is now illegal to spay and neuter disabled people, because under ADA, Olmstead and the I/DD Act of 2010, we have the right to bear children and be good model parents.

    One more thing, Margaret.

    Disabaphobia is a Federal Hate Crime and that Michael O’Brien will get married.

    And, if Michael O’Brien can get married, why can’t you let DangerWoman marry Josef Hal?!?

    Thank you for reading this and if you want to talk to me, my number is 404-918-6425 (US Only) or e-mail me at


  35. Kristi Hill says:

    My older brother is developmentally disabled and at 18 was put in an ‘independent living’ program. It was there that he met his wife. They have been married forty years now. They live in their own apartment and work at the Development Achievement Center. They have went through very tough times in that forty years and some due to their disability and some due to health issues. Together they faced them and worked through them. They love each other and are each other best friend.
    Together they do pretty well, despite their disabilities. I believe if they were alone they would both need to be in a group home. They live one block from my home so I see them often and honestly know that they are successful with some help from family and they now have PCA help due to medical issues. (Cancer and arthritis) They made their marriage work when I have seen so many marriages fail. They also have an autistic son that is 37 yrs old that they love more than life itself. If only all marriages were as successful as theirs. I guess my point is that a successful marriage is not based on the couple’s I.Q. it is how much love and determination the couple has.

  36. Amanda says:

    “As guardians, the O’Briens take care of all of Michael’s daily living needs, as well as his medical and psychological care. Michael has said he gets along fine with his parents, but he feels they put too many limitations on him.

    A psychiatrist on behalf of the parents said Michael functions at a level below an IQ of 71 and his “overall broad independence” is that of someone slightly less than 10 years old.”

    Seems to me that his low level of self-support is because his parents have failed to teach him HOW to take care of himself. They take care of his daily needs, such as what? Cooking for him? Teach him to cook small meals, doesn’t have to be gourmet courses. Doing his laundry? Teach him how to do that. Cleaning the house? Teach him. Grocery shopping? Have him come up with the list and go through the store with you to shop. Paying bills? Teach him money management skills. If he can maintain a successful relationship for 3 years, he has the ability to learn new skills. As far as referencing behaviors he had as a minor goes, he’s 27 now. It’s been 10 years since he was considered a minor. No one has bothered to teach him proper behavior in the last 10 years? Doesn’t seem like he’s had any problems lately, if all they can cite is from a decade ago.

  37. ivanova smith says:

    it should not matter that he has a intellectual disability. he should have every right to be wed if he wants to. this is a civil rights case really because the parents are trying take away his right to marry. if his fiancée loves him and want to marry him then they should be able to get married. that is missed up that they are trying take his rights. more people with intellectual /developmental disabilities should get married.

  38. Mary says:

    What could it hurt? The article clearly states that both individuals are residing in homes for individuals with disabilities. They have already been dating for 3 years, so marriage is just a next step. Why do we have to put so many limitations on two people that just want to love one another?

    If this were a story about a 10 year old little girl dying of cancer and wanting to get married to her elementary school boyfriend as her final life’s wish…would we look at it differently?

    In a world so full of hate and ridicule for just about everything…let’s just stop and let these two individuals get married and continue in their happiness. After all, there are far worse things in this world.

    Best of luck to both of them!

Copyright © 2008-2015 Disability Scoop, LLC. All Rights Reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions | Reprints and Permissions