Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries
Stasi v. Sweigart
At issue in this appeal was a family court order terminating Mallory Sweigart's parental rights to her nine-year-old daughter. The court of appeals reversed, finding Mallory had not "wilfully failed to visit the child," the statutory ground for termination alleged in this case. Mallory Sweigart, the Child's biological mother, was twenty-five years old when the Child was born. Brittney Stasi was Mallory's sister, and Lukas Stasi was Brittney's husband. Mallory suffered from severe mental illness, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and attempting suicide multiple times. The Child stayed with the Stasis in Fort Mill, South Carolina, from June 2014 until August 2014. Following another of Mallory's suicide attempts, in 2015 the Stasis filed an action in family court seeking custody of the Child. From December 2014 until September 2017, Mallory saw the Child only four times. When the Stasis first started taking care of the Child, Brittney and Mallory had a strong and loving relationship. Beginning in December 2014, however, their relationship began to deteriorate when Mallory claimed the Stasis coerced her into signing the custody agreement. In April 2016, represented by counsel for the first time, Mallory filed an action seeking to have custody of the Child returned to her. Mallory filed an affidavit in support of the claim and made extreme allegations against Brittney. The family court dismissed Mallory's action. In April 2017, the Stasis filed this action for termination of Mallory's parental rights and adoption of the Child. In November 2018, the family court terminated Mallory's parental rights and granted the adoption. In its order, the family court noted that in the twenty-nine months the Child lived with the Stasis before this proceeding was filed, Mallory visited the Child only four times, including two incidental visits while she was in town for hearings. The family court found by clear and convincing evidence Mallory willfully failed to visit the Child and termination of Mallory's parental rights was in the Child's best interests. The court of appeals found the Stasis "did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that [Mallory's] failure to visit was willful" and reversed the termination of Mallory's parental rights in an unpublished opinion. The South Carolina Supreme Court found by the required clear and convincing standard of proof that Mallory's failure to visit the Child was willful, and that termination of Mallory's parental rights is in the Child's best interest. Therefore, the Court reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the family court's order terminating Mallory's parental rights and granting the Stasis' adoption of the Child. View "Stasi v. Sweigart" on Justia Law
Brooks v. Cole, et al.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in quashing the notice of appeal filed by the Family Court of the Court of Common Pleas of the First Judicial District (the Family Court) on the basis that the trial court’s order was not an appealable collateral order under Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 313. Because the Court concluded the trial court’s order denying summary judgment on sovereign immunity grounds was a collateral order, appealable as of right under Rule 313, the Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and remanded to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings. View "Brooks v. Cole, et al." on Justia Law
In re Samuel A.
The appointment of a guardian ad litem for a parent in a dependency proceeding radically changes the parent's role, transferring direction and control of the litigation from the parent to the guardian ad litem. While necessary to protect the rights of an incompetent parent—an individual incapable of understanding the nature and purpose of the proceeding or unable to assist counsel in a rational manner—appointment of a guardian ad litem is not a tool to restrain a problematic parent, even one who unreasonably interferes with the orderly proceedings of the court or who persistently acts against her own interests or those of her child.The Court of Appeal reversed the order appointing a guardian ad litem for mother, concluding that the appointment of a guardian ad litem for mother is not supported by substantial evidence and was not harmless. In this case, mother's clashes with counsel were not the result of any mental health disorder but were deliberate and strategic, designed to frustrate and delay proceedings she believed were going to be unfavorable to her. The court noted that, while mother is unquestionably a difficult party, a guardian ad litem cannot be appointed without any finding of her incompetence. View "In re Samuel A." on Justia Law
Snowden v. Jaure
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the district court to grant Father's petition to modify child support, holding that the district court did not improperly impute Mother's net monthly income at $3,975.In 2018, the district court modified the parties' original parenting agreement as to their child and ordered Mother to pay child support to Father in the amount of $245 per month. In 2019, Father filed a petition to modify child support, asserting that Mother's income had increased, thus warranting a change in child support. The district court calculated a presumptive child support obligation for both parents and found Mother's share of the total presumptive child support obligation to be $597 per month. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in imputing the parties' respective incomes for child support purposes. View "Snowden v. Jaure" on Justia Law
In re Guardianship of ARB
The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court ordering the guardianship of ARB, a minor child, to terminate, holding that the district court did not err when it determined that exceptional circumstances did not warrant continuation of the guardianship.Mother, Father, and Grandparents petitioned the district court to appoint Grandparents as ARB's co-guardians. The district court granted the petition. Three years later, Mother filed a petition to terminate the guardianship, arguing that it was no longer necessary and that it was in ARB's best interests to live with her. After a hearing, the district court issued a decision letter terminating the guardianship effective upon completion of a transition plan. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the great weight of the evidence showed that Mother was a fit parent at the time of the hearing, the guardianship was no longer necessary, and no exceptional circumstances or compelling reasons warranted an exception to the principle that a fit parent is entitled to custody of her child. View "In re Guardianship of ARB" on Justia Law
Dept. of Human Services v. J. S.
Two juvenile dependency cases raised an issue of the scope of a juvenile court’s temporary emergency jurisdiction under ORS 109.751, which was part of Oregon’s enactment of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). Parents were residents of Washington who were living temporarily at a motel in Oregon. The juvenile court asserted temporary emergency jurisdiction over their 15-month-old son after police, investigating the death of his infant brother, found him living in squalid and dangerous conditions in the motel room. The court later entered several dependency judgments concerning that child as well as another child later born to Parents in Washington. Parents challenged the juvenile court’s authority under ORS 109.751 or any other provision of the UCCJEA to issue dependency judgments making their two children wards of the court in Oregon. On Parents’ appeals, the Court of Appeals affirmed the juvenile court, holding that the juvenile court had properly exercised temporary emergency jurisdiction as to both children under ORS 109.751 and did not exceed its temporary emergency jurisdiction when it issued dependency judgments as to the children. Only mother filed a petition for review, which the Oregon Supreme Court allowed. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed the juvenile court’s denial of mother’s motions to dismiss the dependency petitions, because the juvenile court had temporary emergency jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to enter dependency judgments as to the children. However, the juvenile court exceeded the scope of its temporary emergency jurisdiction, and therefore we vacate certain parts of the dependency judgments. As a result, the appellate court was affirmed in part and reversed in part. View "Dept. of Human Services v. J. S." on Justia Law
Wheeler v. Marvin
Karen Wheeler, as administrator of the estate of Eugene Drayton, appealed a probate court judgment declaring Kristin Marvin was the biological child of Drayton, and was therefore an heir of Drayton for purposes of intestate succession. The probate court appointed Wheeler, who was Drayton's daughter, as the administrator of Drayton's estate. In her filings with the probate court, Wheeler identified herself and her brother as Drayton's only heirs. Marvin, however, later filed a petition with the probate court in which she claimed to also be a biological child of Drayton. She requested that the probate court consider the results of a DNA test allegedly showing that Drayton's half brother was Marvin's uncle and, therefore, indicating that Marvin was Drayton's daughter. Wheeler testified that she was unaware that Drayton had any children other than herself and her brother. She asserted that no one, including Drayton, had ever stated to her that Marvin was Drayton's child. Wheeler claimed to have met Marvin for the first time at a funeral held after the death of Drayton's mother, but, she said, Drayton did not introduce them. On appeal, Wheeler argued primarily that the probate court erred in considering the DNA test result, because the DNA samples were collected not by disinterested parties but by Marvin and Curtis, who then mailed them outside the presence of disinterested parties. Wheeler asserts that "there is a possibility that the samples were switched because they were in the exclusive possession of interested parties prior to being mailed to [the laboratory that performed the test]." She points out that the test result itself disclaims any responsibility for how the samples were collected and is based on the assumption that they were collected correctly. The Alabama Supreme Court found after review that Wheeler did not present any authority suggesting that the probate court could not admit and consider the DNA test if it believed the testimony of Curtis and Marvin describing how the DNA samples were collected and submitted. Accordingly, she did not show the probate court erred in considering the DNA test result based on how the samples were collected and submitted. View "Wheeler v. Marvin" on Justia Law
Jones v. Fairfield
The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's denial of a petition for return of petitioner's child to France under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The panel concluded that the district court made three legal errors: 1) assuming petitioner cut off financial support for the child, the district court erred as a matter of law in determining that was sufficient to establish that he clearly and unequivocally abandoned the child, the showing required for deeming a parent not to be exercising custody rights; 2) the district court further erred in declining to return the child to France based on a "grave risk" defense, without first considering whether there are alternative remedies available to protect the child and permit her return to France for the period of time necessary for French courts to make the custody determination; and 3) the district court also erred in relying in part on the pandemic to deny the petition because the record did not include any evidence addressing what specific pandemic related risk returning the child to France would present. View "Jones v. Fairfield" on Justia Law
In re Parenting of P.H.R.
The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part four provisions of a district court order and amended parenting plan in this case, holding that certain provisions in the provisions in the court's amended parenting plan were erroneous.The amended parenting plan at issue required Sarah Willmon and her husband to attend family counseling, allowed her ex-husband, Marlen Russell, to contact the children regularly, required the parties to mediate future disputes, and split between the parties the tax dependency deductions. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the district court (1) erred to the extent it ordered Sarah's current husband to attend family counseling; (2) abused its discretion when it ordered that Marlen may contact the children "regularly"; (3) erred when it ordered future conflicts to be subject to mandatory mediation; and (4) did not err when it divided the tax dependency deductions between the parties. View "In re Parenting of P.H.R." on Justia Law
Marriage of Pletcher
The issue presented by this case arose from a family law order setting pendente lite spousal support. Appellant Mitchell Fletcher operated an investment management business. His income fluctuated considerably from year to year depending on the performance of the market. In re Marriage of Riddle, 125 Cal.App.4th 1075 (2005) held that a court had to calculate future income based on a representative sample of past income. Instead of doing that, the trial court here forecasted Mitchell’s future income based on the most recent year of historical income, which happened to be Mitchell’s best year ever by a wide margin. Given the nature of his income structure, however, it was unlikely Mitchell would repeat such a year. In the recent past, Mitchell had made as little as one-third of the amount the court based its calculation on. The Court of Appeal determined the trial court abused its discretion in calculating his prospective income on an unrepresentative sample period. In addition to managing investments, Mitchell and Jill Fletcher started a theater company. In calculating Mitchell’s income, Court of Appeal found the trial court did not consider any losses from the theater company on the ground that the theater was not “related to” the investment business. The Court agreed with Mitchell that the trial court employed the wrong legal standard in conducting that analysis. The error, however, was harmless because Mitchell did not identify any prospective theater expenses that would impact his income going forward. Nevertheless, because this issue may recur in this case, the Court set forth the proper legal standard for further proceedings upon remand. View "Marriage of Pletcher" on Justia Law