Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Lisa and Nicolas Kelpe married in 1997 and separated in 2010. The marriage was dissolved in 2013. Nicholas was a senior manager with Ernst & Young and accrued benefits under a qualified defined benefit retirement plan. In 2012, Nicholas became an equity partnership, which required a $150,000 capital contribution from his post-separation property. He then received profit distributions instead of a salary and participated in the Top-Hat deferred compensation retirement plan, which was not available to non-partner employees. Nicholas suffered a heart attack in 2014 and resigned before vesting in the Plan. Based on 20 years of service with the firm, 13 of which were during the marriage, Nicholas received a lump-sum payment of $928,243.The court of appeal affirmed that the lump-sum payment was Nicholas’s separate property, rejecting an argument that his right to receive the benefit accrued during the marriage by virtue of the years of service needed to qualify for the payout, even though he was not then a partner and therefore not eligible for the benefit. The payment was an additional benefit Nicholas acquired when he became a partner, after the parties’ separation. Nicholas was not equitably estopped from claiming the Top-Hat payout as separate property despite a letter expressing willingness to treat the asset as having a community component in order to reduce his tax liability and potentially his spousal support obligation. View "In re: Marriage of Kelpe" on Justia Law

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M.V. (Mother) appealed juvenile court’s orders sustaining jurisdiction and removing her three children. She contended insufficient evidence supported dependency jurisdiction. Mother also argued the court’s dispositional order was not supported by clear and convincing evidence. After review, the Court of Appeal agreed with Mother, reversed the court's order and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Ma.V." on Justia Law

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Appellant William Pullen appealed the family court’s denial of his Family Code section 2030 motion to compel respondent Windham Bremer, the trustee of the Elizabeth Anne Wendt Trust, to pay his attorney fees stemming from his successful motion to join the trustee as a third party to the dissolution action involving Pullen and his ex-wife Elizabeth Anne Wendt. Pullen contended the family court’s ruling was an abuse of discretion as it was based on legal error, and that it effectively precluded him from further litigating the matter. Bremer counters that under California law, a trustee could not be compelled to disburse money absent a showing of bad faith. He argued that Pullen’s claim was subject to Probate Code restrictions on claims against spendthrift trusts. He also claims that payment was barred under Indiana and Illinois law, and that appellant’s underlying claim was specious. The California Court of Appeal surmised the question presented involved the administration of the trust rather than interpreting its terms, Indiana law might apply, and Illinois law was inapplicable. "However, choice of law is immaterial as both Indiana and California follow the modern interpretation regarding the liability of trusts and trustees to third parties. This modern approach allows third parties to obtain relief from the trust for matters arising out of the trust’s administration, and is not limited by spendthrift provisions." The Court found section 2030 provided for the award of attorney fees against parties other than spouses, like the trustee. Since the award of attorney fees stemmed from the administration of the trust and did not involve a claim against the beneficiary, payment from a spendthrift trust was not contingent on the bad faith of the trustee. It was an abuse of discretion for the family court to make the award of fees contingent on such a showing and its judgment was reversed and remanded for additional proceedings. View "Marriage of Wendt and Pullen" on Justia Law

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G.H. and J.H. married in 2006 and had two children, L.H. and B.H. The couple separated in August 2018. A dependency case was initiated for the children based on allegations that J.H. was abusing G.H. in their presence. In January 2019, upon stipulation of the parties, the juvenile court issued a final judgment in the dependency matter granting joint legal custody of the children but awarding G.H. sole physical custody. The court granted J.H. supervised visitation, noting the expectation that the family would “move toward less restrictive visits.” No restraining order was sought against J.H. as part of this judgment, and no such order was imposed. In October 2018, J.H. filed for divorce. In April 2019, J.H. filed a request for a custody evaluation and “family therapy” with the children, which the court granted.In August 2019, G.H. filed a request for a domestic violence restraining order (DVRO) in favor of herself and her children against J.H. The court granted a two-year DVRO, rather than the five-year DVRO requested by G.H. The court of appeal affirmed. The trial court did not err in excluding the parties’ children as protected parties in the DVRO nor in precluding their 12-year-old daughter from testifying at the contested hearing. View "J.H. v. G.H." on Justia Law

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David Maher appealed the judgment of dissolution of his marriage with Laurie Strawn. He primarily contended there was insufficient evidence to impute income to him and to step down the spousal support he received. In determining Laurie’s ability to pay David support, the court took into account numerous circumstances, including that Laurie was spending about $3,000 per month for their adult son’s college expenses. The question this case posed was whether the court could properly consider that expense in determining her ability to pay spousal support. The trial court determined that the "better reasoned cases" indicate that the court has discretion to consider an adult child’s college expenses like any other expenditure of discretionary income. "The ultimate question in determining ability to pay is whether the expense is reasonable and will result in a just and equitable award of spousal support." The main argument to the contrary was that supporting an adult child reduces the supporting spouse’s available funds to pay spousal support. "The supported spouse, so the argument goes, is in effect being compelled to pay adult child support, which the law prohibits." The Court of Appeal found that both In re Marriage of Epstein 24 Cal.3d 76 (1979) and section Family Code 4320 compelled the conclusion that a trial court may appropriately consider a supporting spouse’s payment of adult children’s college expenses in determining ability to pay spousal support. With no reversible error, the Court affirmed the trial court's support order. View "Marriage of Maher and Strawn" on Justia Law

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By petition for writ of mandate A.M. (Mother) challenged the family court’s ruling subjecting her and her child (Minor) to its continued jurisdiction to adjudicate the paternal grandparents’ petition for visitation. Mother’s husband and father of her child died tragically in October 2018 while performing his job trimming trees. In 2019, father’s parents, R.M. and E.M. (Grandparents), filed a petition requesting visitation with Minor under Family Code section 3103. Concurrently with the petition, Grandparents filed a jurisdictional declaration in accordance with the UCCJEA stating Minor had lived in San Diego since birth in November 2015. Before any action on the petition, on January 31, 2019, Mother filed an ex parte application for an order allowing her and her child to move from San Diego to Washington state to be near Mother’s parents and other close family members. The family court denied the application on the ground it was “not an emergency.” The Court of Appeal agreed with mother that writ relief was warranted in this case, and issue a peremptory writ of mandate directing the court to vacate its October 22, 2020 order and enter a new order dismissing the petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (1997). View "A.M. v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The juvenile court asserted emergency jurisdiction over seven-year-old A.T., whose mentally ill mother had taken him from Washington state to California in violation of Washington family court orders. The court detained A.T., placed him temporarily with his father in Washington, and initiated contact with the Washington family court to address which state had jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). In the meantime, the Wiyot Tribe intervened and, with A.T.’s mother asserted Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) required the court to retain jurisdiction in California.The juvenile court determined ICWA was inapplicable and that the Washington family court had continuing exclusive jurisdiction and dismissed the dependency action in favor of the family court proceedings in Washington. The court of appeal affirmed. The juvenile court properly applied the UCCJEA and dismissed the dependency action in favor of family court proceedings in Washington state after finding ICWA inapplicable because the child had been placed with his non-offending parent. ICWA and the related California statutory scheme expressly focus on the removal of Indian children from their homes and parents and placement in foster or adoptive homes. View "In re A.T." on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal dismissed Mother's appeal of the juvenile court's declaration that her son is a dependent child of the court after sustaining an amended petition under Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, subdivision (b)(1). The court concluded that Mother is correct that termination of dependency jurisdiction does not necessarily moot an appeal from a jurisdiction finding that directly results in an adverse juvenile custody order. However, the court explained that in most cases, including the one at bar, for the court to be able to provide effective relief, the parent must appeal not only from the jurisdiction finding and disposition order but also from the orders terminating jurisdiction and modifying the parent's prior custody status. Therefore, without the second appeal, the court cannot correct the continuing adverse consequences of the allegedly erroneous jurisdiction finding. In regard to Mother's alternative contention, the court concluded that this case does not present an issue of broad public interest. View "In re Rashad D." on Justia Law

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Wang initiated the dissolution of marriage proceedings against Zhou. The parties have a daughter, born in 2013 in China. Daughter lived primarily in China with Zhou but made frequent, extended trips to the U.S. to visit Wang, who worked in California. The court assumed emergency jurisdiction under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA, Fam. Code 3400): Daughter would return to China with Zhou, and then return to California for extended periods. The parties agreed they would either register the California order or create an identical order in China "so that there will be a fully enforceable order in both jurisdictions.”In 2018, Zhou sought to register a Chinese judgment. Zhou had alleged to the Chinese court that Wang “tricked” her; that court denied Wang’s request to implement the California judgment and determined that Zhou should have sole custody. Wang opposed the registration of the order and asked the court to order Zhou to return Daughter to the U.S. for visitation. Wang had participated in the Chinese proceedings and was appealing the Chinese judgment. The court ordered Zhou to comply with the 2016 order and denied Zhou’s request to register the Chinese judgment.The court of appeal affirmed. The trial court did not explicitly rule that it had UCCJEA jurisdiction, nor did Wang argue that the court had superior jurisdiction over the Chinese court regarding child custody. The court properly denied registration because Wang established that the Chinese court, as a court with jurisdiction, stayed the judgment. View "Marriage of Wang & Zhou" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal vacated the juvenile court's jurisdictional finding as to Father and reversed the dispositional order removing J.N. from Father's custody. The court agreed with father that the jurisdictional finding and removal order were solely based on Father's incarceration and criminal record and that such evidence is insufficient to support either jurisdiction or removal. In this case, substantial evidence does not support an actual nexus between this criminal history and any specifically identified, substantial, current risk of serious physical harm to J.N. Furthermore, the record does not contain substantial evidence to support removal of J.N. from father.Father also challenges the trial court's denial of reunification services based on a detrimental finding under Welfare and Institutions Code section 361.5, subdivision (e). The court concluded that section 361.5 is inapplicable and that Father was not entitled to reunification services, regardless of any potential detriment to J.N. therefrom. The court nevertheless vacated the trial court's detrimental finding because it could prejudice Father in future dependency proceedings. View "In re J.N." on Justia Law