Sharon Kowalski lived with her lesbian partner, Karen Thompson, in St. Cloud, Minnesota for about four years. Though Kowalski's parents were not aware of the relationship at the time, the couple had exchanged rings and named one another as insurance policy beneficiaries. On November 13, 1983, Kowalski suffered severe brain injuries in an automobile accident involving a drunk driver. The injuries left Kowalski with permanent physical disabilities, requiring her to remain in a wheelchair, and the mental capacity of a four to six year-old child.
Both Thompson and Sharon Kowalski's father, Donald Kowalski, petitioned to be named Sharon Kowalski's legal guardian in March 1984. With the understanding that she would have visitation rights, Thompson agreed that Donald Kowalski would be named Sharon Kowalski's guardian. The court's guardianship order, however, gave Donald complete control over visitation.
On July 25, 1985, Donald immediately cut off Thompson's visitation rights and moved Sharon from a nursing home near Thompson's home to one further away. Thompson appealed the order, but the appellate court affirmed the order initially, citing testimony by Sharon's family and nursing home staff that Sharon seemed depressed and sad after her visits with Thompson and postulating that it would be in Kowalski's best interest to discontinue visitation with Thompson.