Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Arizona Supreme Court
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In this termination of parental rights case the Supreme Court held that when a juvenile court finds a parent unfit for neglecting or willfully abusing a child the court may also find the parent unfit as to that parent's non-abused children but must first determine whether there is clear and convincing evidence of a risk of harm to the children.After then six-week-old J.M. was diagnosed with a large subdural hemorrhage on her brain the juvenile court terminated Mother's rights to J.M., F.M., and M.R., and terminated Father's rights to J.M. and F.M. The court found that J.M.'s injuries were the result of willful abuse and that both parents demonstrated their lack of protective capacities for all the children. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that when a juvenile court determines whether to terminate parental rights to non-abused children, the risk of harm to such children should be considered under a totality of the circumstances analysis during the best-interests inquiry. The Supreme Court affirmed the severance order but vacated the court of appeals' opinion in part, holding that a juvenile court's extrapolation of parental unfitness will not pass constitutional muster unless the risk of harm to non-abused children is proven by clear and convincing evidence. View "Sandra R. v. Department of Child Safety" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the family court directing the donation of cryopreserved embryos to another couple following the parties' divorce, holding that the parties' agreement directing the disposition of the embryos did not grant the family court discretion in awarding the embryos but, rather, directed donation of the embryos.After Husband petitioned for divorce he asked that the couple's seven viable cryogenically preserved embryos be donated to another couple. The family court found that the "Embryo Cryopreservation & Embryo Disposition" agreement entered into by the parties did not resolve whether either party should get the embryos or whether they should be donated. The court balanced the parties' interests and concluded that Husband's right not to be compelled to be a parent outweighed Wife's right to procreate and directed that the embryos be donated to another couple. The Supreme Court affirmed but on different grounds, holding that the agreement required donation of the embryos and did not grant the family court discretion to make either a unilateral award or direct donation. View "Terrell v. Torres" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that a parent must provide evidence of a "meritorious defense" to succeed on a Rule 46(E) motion to set aside a severance judgment following a Rule 64(C) acceleration of a final adjudication as a result of a missed initial hearing, pretrial conference, or status conference.Mother received a notice of the parental termination proceedings but failed to appear for a status hearing and pretrial conference (January hearing). The court proceeded to an accelerated severance hearing under Rule 64(C), after which the court found grounds for severance and that termination was in the children's best interests. The juvenile court subsequently granted Mother's motion to set aside the severance judgment. The court reinstated its January severance order, finding Mother failed to establish good cause for her absence at the hearing. The court of appeals vacated the severance order, holding that requiring a meritorious defense to set aside the accelerated hearing judgment violated Mother's right to due process. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding (1) requiring a meritorious defense in a Rule 46(E) motion to set aside a severance judgment following a Rule 64(C) accelerated hearing does not violate due process; and (2) the juvenile court did not abuse its discretion by finding that Mother failed to show good cause for her nonappearance at the January hearing. View "Trisha v. Department of Child Safety" on Justia Law

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In this divorce case, the Supreme Court vacated a portion of the divorce decree providing for an order under Koelsch v. Koelsch, 148 Ariz. 176 (1986), holding that federal law does not permit a state court to order a military spouse to pay the equivalent of military retirement benefits to a former spouse if the military spouse continues to work past an eligible retirement date.When the parties divorced, Husband was still an active duty service member. The trial judge ordered Husband, if he chose to work beyond his retirement eligibility date, to begin making payments to Wife equivalent to what she would have received as her share of Husband's military retirement pay (MRP) had Husband retired. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that federal law precluded such indemnification. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that state courts cannot order service members to make MRP-based payments to former spouses before retirement. View "Barron v. Barron" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court vacated the family court's orders to the extent those orders appointed and granted authority to specific treatment professionals for the child in this case and otherwise limited Father's sole legal decision-making authority, holding that the family court exceeded its authority.Under Ariz. Rev. Stat. 25-410(A), when a family court designates one parent as the sole legal decision-maker for a child, the court may limit the decision-maker's authority only to prevent endangering the child's physical health or significantly impairing the child's emotional development. Upon the parties' divorce in this case, the family court awarded Father final legal decision-making authority concerning their child's education and medical and dental care. The current dispute arose over the parties' handling of the child's gender identification. Eventually, the family court appointed a specific treating therapist for the child and a consulting expert for the court and parties, with attendant restraints on Father's authority. The Supreme Court vacated the family court's orders, holding (1) section 25-410(A) did not authorize the court's appointment orders; and (2) neither Ariz. Rev. Stat. 25-405(B) nor Arizona Rule of Family Law Procedure 95(A) authorized the family court to appoint the professionals as "consulting experts." View "Paul E. v. Courtney F." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court remanded this case to the superior court to grant Defendant’s motion to dismiss on the basis that issue preclusion prevented the State from relitigating whether Defendant had abused his infant child, holding that issue preclusion may apply in a criminal proceeding when an issue of fact was previously adjudicated in a dependency proceeding and the other elements of preclusion are met.The Department of Child Safety (DCS) filed a dependency petition alleging that C.C. was dependent as to Defendant because he abusively shook her to the point of causing bleeding in her eyes and brain. While the dependency hearing was ongoing, the State charged Defendant with one count of child abuse. The juvenile court subsequently dismissed the dependency proceeding, ruling that DCS had not met its burden of proving that Defendant inflicted physical injury on C.C. Defendant then moved to discuss the criminal proceeding. The trial judge denied the motion. The court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated the opinion of the court of appeals and remanded for dismissal of the criminal charge, holding that, under the circumstances, the State could not force Defendant to relitigate the same issue. View "Crosby-Garbotz v. Honorable Howard P. Fell" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court vacated a potion of the court of appeals’ opinion and affirmed the family court’s order giving Father final legal decision-making authority over certain issues regarding the parties' child, holding that the words “final” and “sole” have different meanings in the context of a family court’s award of joint legal decision-making that gives one parent final legal decision-making authority over certain matters.The court of appeals determined that an award of joint legal decision-making that gives authority to one parent is, in essence, an award of sole legal decision-making. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that joint legal decision-making with final decision-making authority and sole legal decision-making authority are separate and distinct categories. View "Nicaise v. Sundaram" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the municipal court that the anti-marital fact privilege precluded H.C. from testifying about Defendant’s driving under the influence (DUI) charges, holding that H.C. could testify about the DUI charges under the crime exception to the anti-marital fact privilege. Ariz. Rev. Stat. 13-4062(1).Defendant was charged with criminal damage, domestic violence, and three counts of DUI. Defendant successfully moved to preclude H.C. from testifying about the DUI charges and to sever those charges from the criminal damage charge based on the anti-marital fact privilege. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that when a defendant is charged for committing a crime against his or her spouse, the crime exception to the anti-marital fact privilege allows the witness-spouse to testify regarding not only that charge but also any charges arising from the same unitary event. View "Phoenix City Prosecutor v. Honorable Laura Lowery" on Justia Law

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In this termination of parental rights case, the Supreme Court held that juvenile courts must consider the totality of the circumstances existing at the time of a parental severance determination, including the child’s adoptability and the parent’s rehabilitation, in determining whether severance is in the best interests of the child for purposes of Ariz. Rev. Stat. 8-533(B).The juvenile court in this case severed Mother’s parental rights to her two children. Mother appealed, challenging the juvenile court’s best-interests finding. The court of appeals vacated the juvenile court’s order, concluding that the record supporting the best-interests determination was insubstantial. The Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals’ opinion and affirmed the juvenile court’s judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights, holding that the court of appeals erred in its best-interests analysis and that sufficient evidence supported the juvenile court’s best-interests finding. View "Alma S. v. Department of Child Safety" on Justia Law

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When two legal parents disagree about whether visitation is in their child’s best interests, both parents’ opinions are entitled to special weight under Ariz. Rev. Stat. 25-409(E). However, neither parent is entitled to a presumption in his or her favor, and the parents’ conflicting opinions must give way to the court’s finding on whether visitation is in the child’s best interests.At issue in this case was whether the family court abused its discretion in awarding Grandparents visitation after Mother and Father’s divorce. Mother objected to the visitation. The court of appeals affirmed, concluding that Father’s opinion on visitation, not only Mother’s, was entitled to special weight under section 25-409(E). The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) when two legal parents’ visitation opinions conflict, neither parent is entitled to a presumption in his or her favor, and neither opinion is entitled to special weight because the court’s determination of whether visitation is in the child’s best interests controls; and (2) the family court did not abuse its discretion in this case. View "Friedman v. Roels" on Justia Law