Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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Appellant Raymond Dapo filed suit against his adoptive mother for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred 13 years earlier. He then agreed to release the adoptive mother from liability in exchange for her filing a third-party equitable apportionment claim against the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and assigning the claim to him. OCS challenged the validity of this assignment. The superior court agreed with OCS that the assignment of the adoptive mother’s apportionment claim was void; it invalidated the assignment, dismissed the claim with prejudice, and awarded OCS attorney’s fees. Dapo appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because a defendant prosecuting a third-party equitable apportionment claim possessed nothing in the claim itself that could be assigned, such claims are not assignable, and the Court affirmed the superior court’s invalidation of the assignment in this case. But the Supreme Court also concluded that it was error to dismiss the apportionment claim with prejudice; the Court thus vacated the order of dismissal and remanded for the court to provide the adoptive mother a reasonable time to decide whether to pursue the claim herself. View "Dapo v. Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs" on Justia Law

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The superior court determined that the marital estate should be divided 60/40 in the husband’s favor because of his lower earning potential. But the court then considered the husband’s sale of the marital home: remodeling expenses and financial dealings were inadequately explained, and contributed to a loss of marital equity. The court offset that loss by dividing the wife’s retirement savings plan 70/30 in her favor. And because the retirement savings plan was the most significant marital asset, this allocation resulted in a property division that highly favored the wife. The husband appealed the property division, and also in the trial court's calculation of child support order. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the property division failed to follow the proper procedure for addressing the post-separation dissipation of marital assets: first valuing the dissipated asset at the time of separation and then crediting that amount to the responsible spouse in the property division. The Supreme Court also concluded that a figure for the amount of lost marital equity used in the property division was clearly erroneous. The Court therefore vacated the property division and remanded for further consideration. In all other respects the superior court’s judgment was affirmed. View "Rohde v. Rohde" on Justia Law

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John Morris appealed the division of marital property in his divorce from Andrea Morris. He argued the superior court erred by: (1) crediting the opposing expert’s valuation of certain marital property; (2) refusing to credit him for post-separation mortgage and utility payments; (3) treating a particular marital debt improperly; (4) finding that a gift of marital property became his ex-wife’s separate property; and (5) declining to offset the property awarded to his ex-wife with money she received from their child’s insurance benefit. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s order except for its treatment of the marital debt and its conclusion that the man’s gift of marital property was not returned to the marital estate by his ex-wife. View "Morris v. Morris" on Justia Law

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A maternal aunt and uncle sought to adopt a child over the father’s objection; after finding that the father’s consent was required, the superior court dismissed the adoption petition. The aunt and uncle contended the superior court erred by finding that: (1) the father had justifiable cause for his failure to communicate with the child for one year or more; (2) the father did not abandon the child for six months or more; and (3) the father did not fail to support the child for one year or more. The Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court did not err in its decision; judgment was therefore affirmed. View "In the Matter of the Adoption of J. R. S." on Justia Law

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A divorcing couple’s property settlement agreement required the husband to pay the wife $1,200 per month from the non-disability portion of the husband’s military retirement. The agreement also provided that if the husband took any action that reduced the wife’s share of this payment, the husband would directly pay the wife so as to indemnify her against the reduction. After the husband’s retirement was converted to disability pay and the wife stopped receiving her monthly payment, she moved to enforce the settlement agreement’s indemnity provision. The superior court initially concluded that the indemnity provision was unenforceable because it violated federal law. But when the wife then moved to set the settlement agreement aside, the court decided to enforce the indemnity provision and ordered the former husband to make the monthly $1,200 payment and to pay arrears. To this, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed, holding that federal law did not preclude enforcing one spouse’s promise to pay another a sum of money each month even if the source of the money was military disability pay. View "Jones v. Jones" on Justia Law

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A mother no longer wished to serve as her adult daughter’s guardian due to fear of her daughter’s violence. The superior court held a hearing to determine whether to allow the mother to resign and appoint a public guardian from the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) to serve as the daughter’s guardian instead. After a brief exchange, the superior court allowed the daughter to waive her right to counsel and consent to appointment of a public guardian. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed because the superior court did not sufficiently establish that the waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceeding of Amy D." on Justia Law

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This matter arose from four Child in Need of Aid (CINA) cases. In each, the superior court appointed a guardian ad litem for the child through the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA), and in each case Brenda Finley, working under contract with OPA, appeared as the GAL. Pursuant to CINA Rule 11(e), Finley disclosed to the parties that she was a foster parent in another CINA case. She stated that she did not believe that her role as a foster parent “will affect her ability to be [impartial] in this specific case, or in other cases.” A parent in each case moved for an evidentiary hearing “regarding whether Ms. Finley should be disqualified as a guardian ad litem.” Arguing that Finley’s role as a foster parent might create a conflict of interest due to her relationship with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) as both a foster parent and a GAL, the parents sought additional details to determine whether a conflict existed, suggesting a hearing would allow them to elicit information regarding Finley’s past, present, and possible future tenure as a foster parent, the status of the cases in which she served as a foster parent, her financial arrangements with OCS, and her relationship with OCS workers. Both OCS and OPA filed qualified oppositions to the parents’ request for a hearing, arguing: that categorical disqualification of foster parents from serving as GALs was overbroad; the court should provide clarity on what framework should govern the potential conflict; and that a low bar for disqualification would fail to recognize “the difficulty of keeping positions in child welfare staffed by qualified individuals, ideally with ties to the community . . . .” The Alaska Supreme Court held that the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct applied to determine whether the GAL has a disqualifying conflict of interest and that the superior court must permit limited discovery to ascertain the underlying facts for determining whether a disqualifying conflict exists. View "C.L. v. Office of Public Advocacy" on Justia Law

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A minor in the custody of the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) was brought to a hospital for mental health treatment. A hospital social worker then petitioned the superior court to have the minor involuntarily hospitalized at a psychiatric facility for a mental health evaluation. The court held a brief ex parte telephonic inquiry at which it took the social worker’s sworn testimony. The court concluded that the minor was a danger to herself and granted the petition. Under the statute governing involuntary commitments, the court was required to hold an evidentiary hearing within 72 hours if the psychiatric facility intended to continue providing treatment beyond that time. Before any hearing, however, OCS informed the court that it consented to the minor’s 30-day commitment for treatment; it contended that its consent made the 30-day commitment “voluntary” and, under the statute governing parental admissions, no hearing was required. The court eventually held an evidentiary hearing nearly 30 days after the minor’s initial hospitalization for evaluation. The court decided that the standards for a 30-day commitment were met because there was clear and convincing evidence that the minor had a mental illness, that she posed a risk of harm to herself, and that there were no less restrictive means of treatment available. The court also concluded that OCS had the statutory authority to admit a child in its care under the parental admissions statute. The first 30 days of the minor’s commitment were therefore considered voluntary, and her continued hospitalization would be considered under the involuntary commitment framework only after those 30 days expired. The court further determined that, because the 30-day limit under the parental admission statute was separate from the 30-day limit before a jury trial was required under the involuntary commitment statute, the minor could be held for an additional 30 days — 60 days total — before there was any need for a trial. The minor appealed, arguing the superior court violated her due process rights by not allowing her to be heard at the initial inquiry, when the petitioner testified under oath, and by treating her initial 30-day commitment as voluntary. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the minor’s hospitalization for evaluation complied with due process; a hearing was not required at the ex parte review stage, and a judge’s decision to hold a brief inquiry with the petitioner did not give the respondent a right to be heard. But the Supreme Court further concluded that it was error to treat the initial 30-day commitment as voluntary, because OCS was not a parent or guardian statutorily authorized to use the voluntary parental admission framework. Because the 30-day commitment should have been considered involuntary, any further hospitalization could not be ordered absent a full hearing or jury trial. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court order characterizing the first 30-day commitment as voluntary and authorizing an additional 30 days of commitment. View "In the Matter of the Hospitalization of April S." on Justia Law

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The superior court terminated a mother’s parental rights to her daughter after a termination trial. The mother appealed, and the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that on the facts of this case, the mother preserved her evidentiary appeal point. The Court rejected the Office of Children’s Services’s (OCS) assertion that the mother waived her evidentiary objection by not repeatedly raising it to every question asked during the relevant testimony. The Court also concluded that, because the superior court did not explain its evidentiary ruling at any point during the relevant testimony or in its termination decision, it could not determine: (1) whether the court allowed some or all of the hearsay testimony for limited purposes; (2) how the court used the hearsay evidence to reach its findings; or (3) whether the court erred or abused its discretion by allowing and relying on the hearsay testimony. The case was therefore remanded to the superior court for a full explanation of its evidentiary ruling, how the ruling related to the hearsay testimony, and how the hearsay testimony related to the trial court’s findings. View "M.B. (Mother) v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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The grandmother of an Indian child was appointed as the child’s guardian. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of the child after the grandmother admitted using methamphetamine and the child tested positive for the drug. After working with the grandmother to address her drug use and other issues, OCS petitioned to terminate the grandmother’s guardianship. Following a hearing, the superior court found that termination of the guardianship was in the child’s best interests and removed the grandmother as guardian. The grandmother appealed, arguing that her removal violated the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and that termination of the guardianship was not in the child’s best interests. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s removal of the grandmother as guardian. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceedings of: Baron W." on Justia Law