Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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Regina S. and Michael C. married in 2000, and had two children, both boys, from the marriage. Regina filed for divorce in late 2014, alleging Michael had engaged in domestic violence against her. The court thus awarded temporary physical and legal custody of the children to Regina pending a divorce trial and permanent custody award. The court restricted Michael to supervised visitation. Michael never actually had any supervised visits with the children, however, because in May 2015 (when the visits were to begin) Regina left Alaska and took the boys with her. Ultimately sole legal and primary physical custody of the children was awarded to the mother. The trial court did so with “reluctance,” finding that the mother had “engaged in . . . egregious parental alienation,” but also finding that the children had become “adjusted . . . to life” in the mother’s care. The court awarded substantial periods of visitation to the father. It explained that if the mother interfered with visitation, it “w[ould] likely change its custody determination to award . . . custody” to the father. Visitation subsequently failed to occur, and the court ordered the mother to show cause. Following a hearing, the court held the mother in contempt and modified the custody decree to give custody to the father. Regina appealed the modification of custody, claiming she had inadequate notice that custody would be determined at the show-cause hearing. She contended the superior court should have continued the hearing when her counsel withdrew several days earlier. She also claimed the court’s modification of custody was based on the court’s mistaken conclusion that she committed custodial interference, a crime of domestic violence. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the mother had adequate notice of the hearing and that the trial court did not err when it found that her conduct constituted custodial interference. View "Regina C., n/k/a Regina S. v. Michael C." on Justia Law

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A mother appealed the superior court’s decision adjudicating her child as a child in need of aid, contending the court relied in part on the record from her previous custody proceeding without giving her prior notice. The mother argued that by not giving her notice, the court violated her due process rights. Relying on cases involving judicial bias, she then claimed the superior court’s due process violation warranted automatic reversal of the court’s adjudication finding, or, alternatively, reversal on the basis that the error was not harmless. The Alaska Supreme Court determined, after review of this case, the mother failed to demonstrate that this alleged error was anything but harmless. View "Amy S. v. State of Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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Jerry Hatten lived with Beverly Toland for 20 years. He died intestate. Hatten had named Toland as the sole beneficiary to his individual retirement account, but did not provide for her to inherit any of his other assets. She sought a larger share of his estate, arguing: (1) Hatten promised to support her financially if she moved to Alaska to live with him; and (2) the court should divide Hatten's property according to their intent because she and Hatten were domestic partners. A special master recommended rejecting Toland's claims, and the superior court adopted the master's recommendation. Finding no reversible error in that decision, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Jerry Hatten" on Justia Law

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Guy Berry and Colleen Coulman had a daughter, born in May 2010. Berry and Coulman never married. Berry was a soldier stationed at Fort Wainwright until shortly before their daughter was born, when he was transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Berry and Coulman did not have a custody agreement. Coulman had sole physical custody of their daughter from her birth. After Berry’s transfer Coulman contacted Alaska’s Child Support Services Division (CSSD) for assistance in obtaining child support from Berry. In May 2011 CSSD entered an order requiring Berry to pay Coulman $773 per month in child support. Berry appealed his child support obligation, arguing: (1) the superior court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify the order; or alternatively, (2) the court abused its discretion by modifying the support order without sufficient proof of a material change in circumstances; and (3) the court impermissibly retroactively modified the support order. The Alaska Supreme Court held the superior court properly exercised its jurisdiction in modifying the support order, that it did not abuse its discretion in modifying the order because there was sufficient proof of material change of circumstances, and that the one-day retroactive modification was a de minimis error that did not require correction. View "Berry v. Coulman" on Justia Law

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A husband appealed the superior court’s unequal property division in a divorce proceeding that gave the wife the majority of the marital estate. He argued the superior court abused its discretion when dividing the property, and that the property division was therefore inequitable. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the property division was neither clearly unjust nor based on clearly erroneous factual findings, and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Downs v. Downs" on Justia Law

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A wife with serious medical conditions filed for divorce, but during trial, the parties agreed to a legal separation to ensure the wife’s continued access to her husband’s employer-sponsored health insurance. The separation agreement’s primary focus was delaying the divorce for 4 years, until the wife reached age 62 and became eligible for 36 months of post-divorce continuing health insurance coverage through the husband’s employer-sponsored health insurance. The superior court divided the marital estate and ordered the husband to pay spousal support for 3 years and to pay for the wife’s health insurance coverage after the expected later divorce. The wife appealed, arguing the court erred by failing to value the husband’s post-retirement medical benefits, declining to consider her agreement to legally separate as a factor in her favor when dividing the marital estate, wrongfully conflating spousal support with its property award, and unfairly allocating the overall property division. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the court’s ruling that it did not need to value the husband’s retirement health benefits and remanded for its valuation and a renewed equitable property distribution. View "Wilkins v. Wilkins" on Justia Law

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Yvonne Gambini appeals the superior court’s property division order for her divorce from Perry Hamilton. Gambini argues that she is entitled to more than half of the marital estate and that the superior court erroneously treated a loan she made to Hamilton prior to their marriage as a marital obligation. She also contends that the court incorrectly valued Hamilton’s retirement account and that several of its procedural decisions unfairly prejudiced her or violated her rights. The Alaska Supreme Court determined none of Gambini’s claims amounted to reversible error. View "Gambini v. Hamilton" on Justia Law

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The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of a three-month-old child after he was found outside alone on a cold winter day. The child’s mother had an alcohol abuse problem and had failed repeated attempts at treatment. The father also had problems with alcohol abuse, never completing treatment, and spending much of the relevant time period in jail or on probation. The mother and father had a second child while OCS’s case was pending, and the agency took custody of that child as too. OCS then petitioned to terminate parental rights to both children. The superior court granted OCS’s petition following trial. The parents appealed: the father argued the superior court erred when it found OCS’s proposed expert witness, an experienced attorney and guardian ad litem, qualified to testify about whether the children would likely suffer emotional or physical harm if returned to their parents’ care. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the record did not support a conclusion that the witness met the heightened standard for expert testimony under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); for that reason the Court reversed the termination order and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Eva H. v. Alaska, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a mother’s and father’s parental rights, finding their two children were in need of aid based on abandonment, incarceration, risk of domestic violence, and substance abuse. The court also determined that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had satisfied its duty to make reasonable efforts to reunify the parents and children. The mother and father separately appealed the court’s reasonable-efforts determinations; the mother also appealed the court’s findings that the children were in need of aid based on abandonment and domestic violence. Consolidating the cases, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error, and affirmed the superior court’s decision to terminate the mother’s and father’s parental rights. View "Violet C. v. State, Dept. of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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A mother wanted to relocate with her daughter from Alaska to New York. She sought primary custody, alleging that the father’s drinking and busy schedule made him an improper guardian for their two-year-old. The superior court concluded that it was in the child’s best interests to remain in Alaska in her father’s custody. The mother appealed, arguing the superior court erred in its analysis. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court did not properly consider the effect of separating the child from her mother, vacated the custody order and remanded for further analysis. However, the Court affirmed the superior court's decision not to order protective measures to ensure the father's sobriety while caring for the child. View "Saffir v. Wheeler" on Justia Law