Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services v. Dara S.
The Alaska Supreme Court has held previously that, under some circumstances, a parent whose parental rights have been involuntarily terminated under Alaska’s child in need of aid (CINA) statutes could seek post-termination review and reinstatement of parental rights. A superior court may vacate a termination order if the child has not yet been adopted and the parent demonstrates, “by clear and convincing evidence, that reinstatement of parental rights is in the best interest of the child and that the person is rehabilitated and capable of providing the care and guidance that will serve the moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare of the child.” Dara S. was the biological mother of Paxton, born February 2011, Paxton was born in Alaska but lived with Dara’s sister and brother-in-law, Scarlet and Monty, in Oregon since being placed with them by OCS in April 2014. Dara visited Paxton in July 2014 and decided to stay in Oregon. Dara’s parental rights to her son had were ultimately terminated as a result of her mental health issues. She timely sought review and reinstatement of her parental rights, and an Alaskan superior court granted review and ultimately granted her reinstatement request. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and the child’s guardian ad litem (GAL) appealed the reinstatement decision, arguing both that post-termination reinstatement of parental rights after an involuntary termination was barred as a matter of law and that the mother had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that reinstatement was in the child’s best interests. The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the argument that reinstatement was barred as a matter of law, but remanded the case to the superior court for further elucidation of its best interests determination. The superior court held a post-remand evidentiary hearing and ultimately confirmed its best interests determination. OCS, joined by the GAL, appealed that determination, arguing that some of the court’s underlying factual findings, and therefore its ultimate best interests finding, were clearly erroneous, and that the reinstatement order therefore had to be vacated, leaving the parental rights termination in place. The Supreme Court determined the disputed underlying factual findings supporting the best interests determination either were not material or not clearly erroneous. Therefore, it concluded the superior court’s reinstatement decision should have been affirmed. View "Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services v. Dara S." on Justia Law
Dapo v. Alaska, Office of Children’s Services
Raymond Dapo was born in 1990. OCS took custody of him ten years later and, in April 2000, placed him in Taun Lucas’s foster home. Lucas and her husband David legally adopted Dapo in May 2002. According to Dapo, Lucas began sexually abusing him shortly thereafter; Lucas, however, alleged that she was sexually abused by Dapo, and Dapo, then 11 years old, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault. The charges were eventually dropped, and Dapo was returned to the custody of the State as a dependent child. When he was 24 years old (in 2015), Dapo filed a complaint against Lucas, alleging that she had sexually abused him while he was a minor. In September 2015, Lucas filed a third-party claim against OCS for apportionment of fault, contending that OCS “had a duty to protect” Dapo and “negligently failed to protect” him. The superior court granted OCS’s motion to dismiss the apportionment claim, holding that it was barred by the ten-year statute of repose, AS 09.10.055(a). Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the statute of repose applied to the apportionment claim and was not unconstitutional as applied. However, the Court determined there were issues of fact regarding the applicability of two exceptions to the statute of repose: claims for gross negligence and claims for breaches of fiduciary duty. Therefore the superior court’s order was reversed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Dapo v. Alaska, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law
Thompson v. Thompson
Sharon Thompson challenged the superior court’s child custody determination, marital property division, and child support order in her divorce proceedings. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the court neither clearly erred nor abused its discretion when it awarded joint legal and shared physical custody, it affirmed the custody determination. But the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the child support order because it did not include sufficient findings to support the calculation of the parties' income. Further, the Court vacated and remanded the property division because the trial court improperly separated a fishing vessel from the rest of the marital estate. View "Thompson v. Thompson" on Justia Law
Joy B. v. Everett B.
A married couple with a ten-year-old son separated in 2014. Following an evidentiary hearing on temporary orders, the trial court found that the father had a history of perpetrating domestic violence and ordered him to complete an intervention program for batterers before he would be allowed unsupervised visitation with the child. At the later custody trial, the director of the intervention program testified that the father had sought entry to the program but had been determined to be unsuited for it because he was a victim of domestic violence rather than a perpetrator. The custody investigator’s report confirmed these conclusions and recommended that the father be granted sole legal and primary physical custody of the child because of the mother’s coercive influence and her inability to meet the child’s mental and emotional needs. Relying primarily on the testimony of the batterers’ program director and the custody investigator, the trial court concluded that the father had overcome the statutory presumption against awarding custody to a parent with a history of perpetrating domestic violence and followed the investigator’s recommendation, granting the father sole legal and primary physical custody of the child. The mother, on appeal, challenged this decision, arguing that the evidence did not support a conclusion that the statutory presumption was overcome because the father never received any treatment or therapy. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the trial court could lawfully consider the expert testimony that the father was not suited for a batterers’ intervention program when deciding whether the statutory presumption against awarding him custody was overcome. Furthermore, the Supreme Court concluded the court did not clearly err or abuse its discretion in its consideration of the child’s best interests. View "Joy B. v. Everett B." on Justia Law
Dunn v. Jones
A father sought to modify a child support order on the basis that his income had decreased. He also asked that the support order be changed to not require him to contribute to the children’s health insurance costs. The superior court found that his gross income had changed by less than 15% and that he therefore was not entitled to a modification of child support. And because the mother was then paying for health insurance for the children, the court added a health insurance adjustment to its new support order while keeping the basic monthly amount the same. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court conclude the superior court erred in finding that as a matter of law the father was obligated to pay 50% of his children’s health insurance costs. Further, it was an abuse of discretion for the court to decline to modify his child support obligation without first calculating an updated adjusted annual income and monthly child support amount. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court's order regarding health insurance costs. In all other respects, it affirmed. View "Dunn v. Jones" on Justia Law
Perry v. Perry
Adam and Kyoko Perry married in November 2005 and had two minor children. For the latter part of their marriage, Kyoko handled the couple’s finances. Kyoko continued her education while married, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and incurring approximately $84,000 in debt. AKyoko testified that she obtained a master’s degree so she could defer her loan payments while Adam was temporarily unemployed. She stated that she feared they could not afford the loan payments while Adam was out of work. Adam decided to leave his job and was temporarily unemployed for a period of 34 days in early 2015, around the same time that Kyoko’s student loan payments began. Adam filed for divorce in March 2017. Kyoko objected when the divorce decree classified a portion of her student loan debt as non-marital. She also argued the court improperly calculated the parties’ income for child support purposes. Because the superior court applied the wrong legal standards to determine whether the student loan debt was marital and to calculate the parties’ incomes for child support purposes, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated the superior court’s final property distribution and child support orders and remanded for the court to conduct the proper legal analysis. View "Perry v. Perry" on Justia Law
Annette H. v. Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services
Mother, Anette H., appealed the termination of her parental rights to her son, who was found to be a child in need of aid based on a hair follicle test positive for controlled substances. She argued that without proof that her drug use caused the child’s exposure, there was no causal link between her conduct and any circumstances that may have endangered the child. She also argued the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) did not make reasonable efforts to reunify the family because it failed to adequately accommodate her mental health issues. Because the record supported the superior court’s finding that the child was in need of aid, and because OCS’s efforts were reasonable under the circumstances, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed termination of the mother’s parental rights. View "Annette H. v. Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law
Hall v. Hall
In a divorce case, the superior court divided the marital estate equally. The estate included the marital home and an adjoining lot, which the spouses agreed should be sold. The husband remained in the home after the wife moved out, and he paid the mortgage until the properties sold nearly two years after the divorce was final. Once the properties sold, the parties requested a hearing on the allocation of the sale proceeds. The husband argued that he should be reimbursed for his post-divorce mortgage payments. The wife countered that the husband’s use of the home as his residence offset any claim he otherwise had to reimbursement. The superior court denied reimbursement to the husband, and the husband appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the findings in the court’s order allocating the sale proceeds were insufficient, so it remanded the case for additional findings. View "Hall v. Hall" on Justia Law
Schwier v. Schwier
A father appealed a superior court’s denial of his motion to modify child support, arguing his house arrest while awaiting trial on federal charges should have been considered involuntary unemployment for purposes of calculating child support. He also argued remand is necessary for an evidentiary hearing and for the superior court to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the father made a prima facie showing of a substantial change in circumstances that would entitle him to an evidentiary hearing, the case was remanded to the superior court to conduct an evidentiary hearing. View "Schwier v. Schwier" on Justia Law
Brett M. v. Amber M.
A Juneau couple with three children separated, and the mother filed for divorce. Wishing to relocate with the children to Oregon for work, she requested primary physical custody. The superior court concluded that it was in the children’s best interests to relocate with the mother. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s custody decision was supported by the record and followed the appropriate legal framework, so it affirmed. View "Brett M. v. Amber M." on Justia Law