Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Michael Lockhart appealed a Chancery Court’s Opinion and Final Judgment entered in July 2019 (the 2019 Order) purporting to clarify the court’s previous 2018 Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Final Judgment (the 2018 Order) equitably distributing property between Lockhart and his ex-wife, Stella Payton. Lockhart also appealed the chancery court’s Order Denying Post Trial Motion entered in February 2020. In doing so, Lockhart claimed the chancery court erred: (1) by modifying the court’s property division ruling from its 2018 Order; (2) by assigning values to property identified in the 2018 Order; (3) in its determination of “proceeds” related to certain businesses owned by Lockhart; (4) by finding Lockhart in contempt; (5) by failing to penalize Payton’s contempt and allowing Payton equitable relief; (6) by failing to assign rental income to Lockhart for two marital rental properties; (7) by failing to provide Lockhart a way to retrieve his personal property from the marital home; and (8) by denying Lockhart’s motion to recuse. Since each of Lockhart’s eight assignments of error either lacked merit or ere procedurally barred on appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the chancery court's decision. View "Lockhart v. Lockhart" on Justia Law

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J.B. appealed a juvenile court order terminating her parental rights to her two children. She argued there was not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to support the court’s determination under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that continued custody by J.B. was likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the children. Retaining jurisdiction under N.D.R.App.P. 35(a)(3), the North Dakota Supreme Court remanded to the juvenile court for detailed findings under ICWA, allowing for additional testimony from the qualified expert witness if necessary to make the required findings. After receiving additional testimony, the district court made additional findings, denied the petition to terminate J.B.’s parental rights, and ordered the children be removed from J.B.’s custody for nine months. No party requested additional briefing or argument following the order on remand. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the juvenile court order. View "Interest of K.B." on Justia Law

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Respondent Simran Singh (Mother) and Petitioner Gunjit Singh (Father) separated in January of 2012. They entered into a settlement agreement which resolved all issues arising from their marriage, including custody and visitation matters involving their two children, then aged eleven and two. Pursuant to that agreement, Mother received primary custody, and the parties consented to submit any future disputes regarding child support or visitation to a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator, specifically providing that his or her decision would "be binding and non-appealable." The family court approved the agreement and granted the parties a divorce in February of 2013. Approximately nine months later, Father filed an action in family court seeking modification of custody, visitation, and child support, alleging Mother had violated a provision of the agreement when she failed to return to South Carolina with the children after embarking on a cross-country tour as a motivational speaker. From January through August of 2014, four family court judges issued decisions— one dismissing Father’s complaint due to the parties' decision to arbitrate; a second issuing a consent order to arbitrate; and two approving amended agreements to arbitrate. The arbitrator issued a "partial" arbitration award finding a substantial and material change of circumstance affecting the welfare and custody of the minor children, and awarding Father temporary custody. A thirty-two-page final arbitration award was issued the next month, awarding custody to Father. A fifth family court judge issued an order in January 2015 confirming both the partial and final arbitration awards. Thereafter, Mother filed five separate Rule 60(b)(4), SCRCP, motions to vacate all the orders approving the parties' agreements to arbitrate. The court of appeals issued its unanimous decision in December of 2019, holding that the parties could not divest the family court of jurisdiction to determine issues relating to custody, visitation, and child support. One month prior, another panel of the court of appeals issued a decision in Kosciusko v. Parham, 836 S.E.2d 362 (Ct. App. 2019), holding the family court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to approve the binding arbitration of children's issues. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari, and affirmed as modified, the appellate court's order. View "Singh v. Singh" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs were W.H. and B.H., who were abused as children, and their grandparents. They brought this tort action for damages in 2014, arguing that DCF failed to accept or respond to dozens of reports of physical and sexual abuse of the children between 2008 and 2012. Among other things, plaintiffs made claims of negligence based on the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ (DCF) failure to perform its statutory obligations and negligent undertaking. The State moved for summary judgment on all counts, arguing in part that the State did not breach any duty owed to plaintiffs, that the State was entitled to sovereign immunity because its actions were discretionary and grounded in public policy, and that plaintiffs could not prove causation. In June 2019, the trial court denied DCF’s motion for summary judgment, and the case proceeded to trial. After the close of the evidence, the trial court granted the State’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the record, holding that even if the jury accepted all plaintiffs’ evidence as true and made all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiff, “the jury could not find the presence of proximate causation.” It determined that the jury would have had to speculate as to “what actions [DCF] would have taken had they acted on reports of maltreatment of the children that were made and not acted upon” as well as “what it is that would have happened had DCF received that report and acted on it.” Plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s decision granting judgment as a matter of law to the State. They argued the court erred in narrowing the scope of DCF's legally actionable duty and in concluding that no reasonable jury could find that DCF’s actions were the proximate cause of then-children B.H. and W.H.’s injuries. They also argued the discretionary function exception to the State’s tort liability did not bar their claim and that the trial court improperly considered factors other than the law and evidence in granting the State judgment as a matter of law. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Stocker, et al. v. Vermont, et al." on Justia Law

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Before getting married, Andy drafted a prenuptial agreement. Abbie first saw the agreement the night before their wedding, when she was intoxicated. The agreement, designed to protect Andy’s substantial assets, designated only certain earnings marital property. It referenced an investment account for Abbie’s benefit, but the paragraph pertaining to this account contained only the words “Not Used,” and no such account was ever created. The superior court enforced the agreement over Abbie’s objection that it was not voluntarily executed. The court then ruled that all income reported on the parties’ tax returns during the marriage was part of the marital estate subject to division and awarded Abbie an additional sum to compensate for the nonexistent investment account. The Alaska Supreme Court determined this interpretation of the agreement was erroneous and key facts relevant to whether the agreement was enforceable were not addressed, thus, the Court reversed the superior court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Andrew B. v. Abbie B." on Justia Law