Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Delaware Supreme Court
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Adria Brock (“Mother”) appealed a Family Court decision terminating her parental rights over her daughter (“K.C.” or “child”). In its decision, the Family Court found that the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Their Families (“DSCYF”) established one of the statutory grounds for terminating the Mother’s parental rights: that the Mother’s parental rights over K.C.’s siblings were involuntarily terminated in a prior proceeding. At the time of the termination hearing, this statutory ground was found at 13 Del. C. 1103(a)(6) and provided for termination where “[t]he respondent’s parental rights over a sibling of the child who is the subject of the petition [had] been involuntarily terminated in a prior proceeding.” The Family Court also found that termination of the Mother’s parental rights was in the best interests of the child. On appeal, Mother argued Section 1103(a)(6) violated her right to due process under the federal and state constitutions because “it creates a presumption that she is unfit to parent any child presently solely because her parental rights [over] older children were previously terminated in North Carolina.” Mother also claimed that “[t]he statutory ‘best interest’ of the child factors set out under 13 Del. C. 722 do not sufficiently address a parent’s present ability to provide adequate care for the child”; that “DSCYF did not present evidence or argument during the trial to support a finding under 11 Del. C. 1103(a)(6) that the Appellant was unfit and that termination of parental rights was in the child’s best interest”; and that “[t]here is insufficient evidence under the clear and convincing standard to demonstrate that the parent is unfit under a best interest of the child analysis.” After considering each of Mother’s arguments, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded that the Family Court’s decision should have been affirmed. View "Brock v. Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families" on Justia Law

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A father appealed a Family Court order denying a Petition for Parental Visitation. Father Bryce Wilcox had been imprisoned since his son (“C.R.”) was two. C.R.’s mother, Marissa LaClaire (“Mother”) did not permit telephone contact between Father and C.R., and has withheld all letters Father has sent C.R. In denying Father’s Visitation Petition, the Family Court declined to order any change in this status quo, and ordered Mother to keep letters Father sent to C.R. should C.R. ever desire to read them. The Family Court justified the rejection of his petition based on the lack of relationship between Father and C.R. and Mother’s testimony that Father’s contact with C.R. would impair C.R.’s emotional development. On appeal, father argued: (1) the Family Court erred when it denied his request for contact with his son by telephone and mail because there was insufficient evidence that such contact would significantly impair C.R.’s emotional development; and (2) the Family Court erred when it justified that denial based upon a lack of relationship between Father and C.R. when that lack of relationship was a result of Mother and the Family Court not permitting Father to have contact with his son since August 2015. The Delaware Supreme Court determined Father's arguments had merit: (1) Mother did not argue Father’s requested contact by telephone and mail would place C.R. in any physical danger, and the only support in the record for impairment to C.R.’s emotional development was Mother’s speculative lay opinion; and (2) the Family Court’s decision overlooked the Supreme Court's prior opinion involving these same parties wherein the Court addressed Mother’s successful effort to block contact with Father. As a result, the Family Court’s decision lacked substantial evidence in the record to support it, was not the product of an orderly and logical process, and was thus reversed. View "Wilcox v. LaClaire" on Justia Law

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Appellant Laura Allen appealed a Family Court Ancillary Order determining the division of property following her divorce from Appellee Charlene Scott. Allen claimed the trial court abused its discretion in designating funds used to purchase real property in Colorado as “marital” because the parties’ Ancillary Pretrial Stipulation described the funds as “premarital.” Allen further contended the Family Court abused its discretion in dividing certain pieces of marital property in the marital estate 60/40 in Scott’s favor contending that the court’s decision was not based on a logical or orderly process and was tainted by the court’s error on the first issue. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court held: (1) because both parties stated in the Ancillary Pretrial Stipulation that the funds used to purchase the Colorado property were premarital in character, and because neither party moved to amend the stipulation to revise that characterization until after the evidentiary record had closed, there was no triable issue on that question; and (2) there was no abuse of discretion in the Family Court’s distribution of the remaining marital property. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for consideration of Scott’s alternative contention that the down payment for the Colorado property was a gift unto the marriage. The Family Court retains the discretion to adjust that distribution to the extent its decision on remand regarding the Colorado down payment funds affects the other 11 Del. C. 1315 factors. View "Allen v. Scott" on Justia Law

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William Fletcher, Jr. challenged a Family Court denial of his petition to modify or terminate alimony payments to his ex-wife, Melissa Feutz. Fletcher argued the Family Court erred by ruling that: (1) Feutz was appropriately employed; (2) there was not a substantial change in circumstances that warranted the termination or modification of alimony; (3) Feutz was not cohabitating with her paramour; and (4) Feutz was entitled to the attorney’s fees awarded. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court held the Family Court did not err in finding that Feutz was properly employed and that she was not cohabitating with her paramour. The Court remanded the issue of whether there was a substantial change in circumstances. In addition, the Court found the Family Court erredin awarding Feutz attorney’s fees for the defense of Fletcher’s Motion to Modify or Terminate Alimony. View "Fletcher v. Feutz" on Justia Law

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Mother and Father appealed a Family Court order terminating their parental rights to Giselle, who was four months old when the Family Court first ordered her removed from the parents’ care. The court found Giselle was at risk of chronic and life threatening abuse based on the previous unexplained serious injuries to her older sibling. The Family Court also found Mother and Father failed to plan for Giselle’s physical needs and her mental and emotional health and development. Mother and Father challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the termination of parental rights and raised a number of constitutional arguments on appeal. Finding the arguments lacked merit, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Family Court’s judgment. View "Sierra v. DSCYF" on Justia Law

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Appellant, husband Mitchell Garrison appealed a family court debt-division order issued after his divorce from Appellee, wife Tamika Downing. Before the Delaware Supreme Court, Husband argued: (1) the family court erred by ordering him to pay premarital debts incurred by Wife to pay for the parties’ wedding; and (2) the family court erred by finding that the parties’ prenuptial agreement barred his claim to half of the value of the Wife’s business which she operated during their marriage. After carefully considering the question presented by the Husband’s first claim, the Supreme Court concluded the equitable exception for property acquired in contemplation of marriage should have been construed narrowly to apply only as originally intended. “Due regard must be given to the fact that the rule is an exception to the Family Court’s statutory jurisdiction. In the future, the Family Court should limit the equitable exception to cases involving real property where the evidence shows that it was the parties’ intention that the property, although acquired in the name of one party prior to marriage, was to become marital property upon their marriage. Any enlargement of the equitable exception beyond that must come from the General Assembly.” Regarding Husband’s second claim, the Supreme Court found no error in the family court’s denial of his request for division of Wife’s business. View "Garrison v. Downing" on Justia Law

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Appellant, Barry Whitmore (father) appealed a Family Court order granting appelle Michelle Robinson's (mother) petition to terminate his parental rights to their now eight-year-old child, C.R. His rights were terminated under 13 Del. C. 1103(a)(5) for his alleged failure or inability to plan for the child’s physical needs or mental and emotional health and development. The father brought four claims on appeal; the first was an allegation the Family Court erred in applying the definition of “necessary care” in 10 Del. C. 901(17) as part of its analysis of the criteria which must be shown to justify termination of parental rights under 13 Del. C. 1103(a)(5). The other three claims challenged the sufficiency of the evidence. After review, the Delaware Supreme Court concluded the first claim had merit: it was evident from the Family Court’s opinion that the court applied the definition of necessary care contained in Title 10 as the “relevant definition” in assessing whether the father had failed to plan for his child under 13 Del. C. 1103(5). The definition of necessary care, however, applied only in Chapter 9 of Title 10, and was not one of the criteria governing whether parental rights should be terminated under 13 Del. C. 1103(a)(5). The Family Court judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Whitmore v. Robinson" on Justia Law

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Tiffany Greenfield appealed after the lawsuit she filed on behalf of minor Ethan Ford, was dismissed. Greenfield alleged that the defendants, who worked for the Delaware Division of Family Services (“DFS”), contributed in some way (as case workers, others as managers and supervisors) to four faulty investigations of reports that Ford and his half-sister, Autumn Milligan, were being abused and neglected by their mother, Tanasia Milligan. According to Greenfield’s complaint, the defendants’ dereliction of duty resulted in the tragic death of Autumn and permanent and irreversible damage to Ford that she averred necessitated long-term physical care and psychological services. The Delaware Supreme Court determined that Ford’s guardian sought redress from individuals who were charged with protecting him but who were unable to do so. "Those same individuals, however, are also required to preserve and foster the family unit, which creates an obvious tension between their duties that requires the exercise of judgment. Under such circumstances, our law requires that complaints against such individuals be written to a higher standard. We agree with the Superior Court that Greenfield’s complaint did not satisfy that standard and therefore affirm." View "Greenfield v. DFS Director Miles, et al." on Justia Law

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Appellant-father Garrett Irwin appealed a Family Court order granting appellee-mother Jenny Shelby sole custody and primary residential placement of their two children. Father argued: (1) the Family Court abused its discretion by siding with the mother’s treating psychologist instead of relying on the expert requested by the father; and (2) the Family Court’s order granting sole custody and primary placement to the mother was against the weight of the evidence and an abuse of discretion. According to Father, the court drew all inferences in Mother’s favor, minimized her mental health and substance abuse issues while giving undue weight to Father’s history of drug use, ignored the mother’s role in their physical altercations, and was generally biased against him. Furthermore, Father expressed concern the Family Court judge was biased in favor of Mother. Although it might have weighed the evidence differently and come to a different conclusion, the Delaware Supreme Court found the Family Court’s factual determinations were adequately supported by the record, thus affirming its judgment. View "Irwin v. Shelby" on Justia Law

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In 1997, David Silverman (“Husband”) and Michelle Silverman (“Wife”) signed a premarital agreement covering their financial affairs if they divorced or died. They married in 1997 and divorced in 2015. In the post-divorce property settlement, Husband sought to enforce the premarital agreement. The Family Court applied the statute governing premarital agreements and found that, although Wife voluntarily entered into the agreement, the disparity in wealth made the agreement unconscionable. Also, according to the Family Court, Husband failed to provide a fair and reasonable disclosure of his property or financial obligations before Wife signed the agreement. The court refused to enforce the agreement. The Delaware Supreme Court accepted Husband’s interlocutory appeal of the Family Court’s order, and determined under the premarital agreement statute, unconscionability alone did not invalidate a premarital agreement. Wife also had to prove that Husband did not provide a fair and reasonable disclosure of his property or financial obligations. Because the Family Court erred when it found Husband’s financial disclosure insufficient, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded to the Family Court to enforce the premarital agreement. View "Silverman v. Silverman" on Justia Law