Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
Alaska Dept. Health & Soc. Serv, Ofc. of Child Serv. v. Zander & Kelly B. (Foster Parents)
The Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of a three-year-old child and placed him with non-relative foster parents. The child lived with the foster parents for over a year when OCS informed them of its intent to place the child with his grandmother. The superior court allowed the foster parents to intervene in child-in-need-of-aid proceedings (CINA) to contest the placement decision. After a hearing, the court stayed the placement, concluding OCS abused its discretion in deciding the move the child with his grandmother. OCS appealed, arguing the superior court erred in staying its decision. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion by permitting the foster parents to intervene. Furthermore, the Supreme Court determined the trial court's factual findings were not clearly erroneous, and the court did not err when it decided OCS abused its discretion in its placement decision. Judgment was therefore affirmed. View "Alaska Dept. Health & Soc. Serv, Ofc. of Child Serv. v. Zander & Kelly B. (Foster Parents)" on Justia Law
Robert A. v. Tatiana D.
In its initial custody decision, the superior court found that a father had a history of committing domestic violence, and therefore established benchmarks for him to meet before he could begin supervised visitation with his children. The father did not appeal that decision. He nonetheless sought to relitigate the domestic violence finding in subsequent proceedings, but the superior court ruled that relitigation of the issue was barred by collateral estoppel. Following an extended evidentiary hearing, the superior court found the father had met the benchmarks set by the earlier order and conditionally granted his request that he be allowed to begin supervised visitation. But the superior court also said that because of the “challenging” nature of the case it could not approve a visitation plan without more detail, such as the identity of individuals willing to act as counselors and visitation coordinators and how the parties would pay for their services. The father appealed the superior court’s order granting in part his motion for supervised visitation, including its application of collateral estoppel to the earlier finding of domestic violence. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court did not abuse its discretion or otherwise err, it affirmed its visitation order. View "Robert A. v. Tatiana D." on Justia Law
Schindler v. Schindler
The superior court awarded the husband the marital home and ordered him to make a corresponding equalization payment to the wife. About a year later the husband sought relief from judgment, arguing that newly discovered evidence showed the court had mis-valued the home. The court denied the requested relief and the husband appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the court’s decision. View "Schindler v. Schindler" on Justia Law
Thiele v. Thiele
Angela and Kim Thiele married in February 2009 and separated in January 2016. Angela filed for divorce in February 2016. Kim received a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree in 1980. After working as an employee in another doctor’s practice, he established his own professional corporation in 2001; he worked as an independent contractor at other practices for the next ten years. During this time his business had few fixed assets because the doctors that employed him covered most of the overhead of running the medical practice. Kim’s business received 30% of the revenue he brought in from seeing patients, which Kim deposited into the corporation’s bank account. Business expenses were paid out of the corporate bank account, as was Kim’s salary. In 2011 Kim decided to open his own practice rather than continue to work as an independent contractor. He obtained a business license and hired an office manager to help him with the transition. At about the same time Angela contributed $15,000 of her own funds to the marital estate. She helped Kim decorate the office, and she participated in discussions with Kim about taking over another doctor’s practice or starting his own practice. Angela also worked as a receptionist and administrative assistant, answering the phone, greeting patients, and performing other administrative tasks as needed. The primary dispute in the couple's divorce centered on the classification of Kim's practice as separate or marital property. The superior court determined that the practice had neither transmuted nor actively appreciated during marriage and therefore was not marital property. The court also declined to award Angela attorney’s fees or reimbursement for the cost of an expert witness. Angela appealed the court’s determination that the medical practice was not marital property and its refusal to award attorney’s fees or costs. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court on both issues. View "Thiele v. Thiele" on Justia Law
Robert A. v. Tatiana D.
The superior court found that a father had a history of committing domestic violence, and it therefore established benchmarks for him to meet before he could begin supervised visitation with his children. The father did not appeal that decision. He nonetheless sought to relitigate the domestic violence finding in subsequent proceedings, but the superior court ruled that relitigation of the issue was barred by collateral estoppel. Following an extended evidentiary hearing, the superior court found that the father had met the benchmarks set by the earlier order and conditionally granted his request that he be allowed to begin supervised visitation. But the superior court also said that because of the “challenging” nature of the case it could not approve a visitation plan without more detail, such as the identity of individuals willing to act as counselors and visitation coordinators and how the parties would pay for their services. The father appealed the superior court’s order granting in part his motion for supervised visitation, including its application of collateral estoppel to the earlier finding of domestic violence. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the superior court did not abuse its broad discretion or otherwise err in this custody case, it affirmed the visitation order. View "Robert A. v. Tatiana D." on Justia Law
In the Matter of April S.
An Alaska Native teenage minor affiliated with the Native Village of Kotzebue (Tribe) was taken into custody by the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and placed at a residential treatment facility in Utah. She requested a placement review hearing after being injured by a facility staff member. At the time of the hearing, the minor’s mother wanted to regain custody. At the hearing the superior court had to make removal findings under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), as well as findings authorizing continued placement in a residential treatment facility under Alaska law. At the hearing, the minor’s Utah therapist testified as a mental health professional. The minor, as well as her parents and the Tribe, objected to the witness being qualified as an ICWA expert, but the superior court allowed it. The minor argued the superior court erred in determining that the witness was qualified as an expert for the purposes of ICWA. Because the superior court correctly determined that knowledge of the Indian child’s tribe was unnecessary in this situation when it relied on the expert’s testimony for its ICWA findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of April S." on Justia Law
Edna K. v. Jeb S.
Edna K. appealed a child custody modification which declined to find a change of circumstance even though both parties sought to modify their joint custody agreement. Edna and Jeb S. never married but had one child together, G.S., in February 2012. The two had a “rocky” relationship and they separated permanently two and a half years after their son’s birth. Edna filed a complaint for primary physical custody with shared legal custody in October 2014. A private custody investigator met with the parties several times from June through August 2016. The investigator noted that the parties proposed nearly identical custodial arrangements. Rather than attempt to “substantiate or invalidate” the allegations of domestic violence raised by the parties, the custody investigator’s report stated that “50/50 custody . . . is what this investigator tried to reach.” The report briefly summarized Jeb’s criminal record and past reports of domestic violence, including a 2005 conviction for sexual abuse of a minor. The report contained only a half-page discussion on domestic violence, noting that although Jeb was the subject of a number of restraining orders, Edna’s 2015 motion stated that no domestic violence existed. The custody investigator also minimized the severity of Jeb’s conviction for sexual abuse of a minor because Jeb later obtained custody of the son born out of that relationship, so the investigator reasoned that “the court [did] not deem him a risk to his own children.” The report recommended shared legal custody and varying degrees of shared physical custody, depending on Jeb’s work schedule and location. With respect to the custody order at issue here, the superior court ruled that Edna was collaterally estopped from presenting evidence of Jeb’s history of domestic violence because the issue had been “adequately addressed” in the parties’ stipulated custody agreement. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s application of collateral estoppel was legal error and reversed the court’s application of collateral estoppel, vacated the court’s findings on changed circumstances, and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on issues of domestic violence. View "Edna K. v. Jeb S." on Justia Law
Burns v. Burns
A mother appealed a final order modifying custody of her three children, arguing the modification was to punish her and was not based on the best interests of the children. She claimed the superior court clearly erred in finding that she misrepresented information to third parties, including her son’s medical providers. She additionally argued she was denied due process because the superior court did not give her expert the opportunity to defend his methodology once the court determined that his psychological evaluation was outside the scope of its expectations. And she asserted the superior court erred in assigning no weight to her expert’s evaluation in making its credibility determinations. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court did not find the modification was made to publish the mother. The Court found the superior court based its underlying findings on the children's best interests, and the court did not clearly err in finding mother misrepresented information ot third parties. The Supreme Court also concluded mother was provided a meaningful opportunity to be heard; it was within the superior court’s discretion to decide how much weight to assign the psychological evaluations in making its credibility determinations. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s modification order. View "Burns v. Burns" on Justia Law
Stephan P. v. Cecilia A.
The mother of an autistic child filed a petition for a protective order against the child’s father, alleging that the father kicked the child during an altercation that took place at the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla, Alaska. At the hearing on the long-term protective order, the court admitted the mother’s recording of statements the son made to her approximately 30-35 minutes after the incident. The son stated that the father kicked him in the buttocks; the only disinterested witness with personal knowledge of the incident testified that the father did not kick his son. Relying on the recording and testimony from the child’s mother and therapist, the superior court found that the father committed assault; relying on the mother’s testimony, the court found that the father committed criminal trespass and granted the mother’s petition. The court also required the father to undergo a psychological evaluation and pay the mother’s attorney’s fees. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated and remanded the superior court’s assault finding, and reversed the court’s trespass finding. The Court determined the superior court made its findings by a "bare preponderance" of the evidence. It was an abuse of discretion for the superior court to admit the recording without making threshold findings as to the child's competency and the recording’s trustworthiness. The protective order was vacated, as was the order for the father to undergo a psychological evaluation. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Stephan P. v. Cecilia A." on Justia Law
Jill Y. v. Casey Y.
At the end of a marriage marked by allegations of domestic violence and substance abuse, a couple sought protective orders as well as a divorce and custody decision regarding their young daughter. After a series of hearings over six months the superior court granted a decree of divorce and issued its custody, visitation, and support order. The mother appealed two aspects of the court’s order: (1) the court’s findings that she did not prove allegations that her ex-husband sexually assaulted her on two occasions; and (2) the court’s restriction of her use and possession of alcohol and controlled substances while she has custody of the child. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not clearly err by finding the mother had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence the alleged sexual assaults occurred, it affirmed that decision. The Court also concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by restricting the mother’s use of alcohol and controlled substances, and affirmed the superior court’s custody decision. View "Jill Y. v. Casey Y." on Justia Law