Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court
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The defendant, Jacob Palmer, was found guilty of felony Partner or Family Member Assault (PFMA) by the Eleventh Judicial District Court, Flathead County, following an incident where he attacked his girlfriend, K.Y., with whom he had been in a relationship for over a decade. During his trial, evidence was presented regarding prior altercations between Palmer and K.Y. Palmer appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Montana, challenging the District Court's decision to admit this evidence.The issue before the Supreme Court of Montana was whether the District Court had abused its discretion by admitting evidence of Palmer's prior altercations with K.Y. in his PFMA trial. The Supreme Court held that the District Court had not abused its discretion. The court reasoned that the evidence of Palmer's previous altercations with K.Y. was relevant and admissible under Montana Rule of Evidence 404(b). The court explained that such evidence can provide context about the complex dynamics of domestic violence, including the cycle of abuse and the reasons why victims such as K.Y. might not immediately report the abuse or might be reluctant to discuss the abuse with law enforcement. The court further determined that the probative value of this evidence was not significantly outweighed by its potential prejudicial effect against Palmer. As such, the court affirmed the District Court's decision to admit the evidence and upheld Palmer's conviction. View "State v. Palmer" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Montana was tasked with determining whether the Municipal Court had sufficient evidence to enter a permanent order of protection against the appellant, Alda Bighorn. Bighorn was prohibited from having contact with her grandchild, L.D.F.S, unless supervised, due to allegations made by L.D.F.S's mother, Camille Fritzler. Fritzler alleged that Bighorn had taken L.D.F.S to a family gathering while intoxicated and seeking narcotics, and was planning to enroll L.D.F.S with a Native tribe to gain custody over her. These allegations were not corroborated by any witness testimony or other evidence, but the Municipal Court granted a permanent order of protection against Bighorn. Bighorn appealed this decision, and the District Court affirmed the Municipal Court's ruling.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana reversed the lower courts' decisions, ruling that the Municipal Court had abused its discretion by granting the permanent order of protection without any substantial, credible evidence supporting Fritzler's allegations. The Supreme Court noted that hearsay allegations may be sufficient to support issuing a temporary order of protection, but not a permanent one. Furthermore, the court deemed it improper for the lower court to issue a visitation order for a grandparent in a protection order proceeding, stating that grandparent visitation should be established by filing a petition under the relevant statute. The case was remanded to the Municipal Court to vacate and rescind the permanent order of protection against Bighorn. View "Fritzler v. Bighorn" on Justia Law

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The case involves Petitioner Victoria Deschamps who sought a writ of supervisory control over the Twenty-First Judicial District Court, Ravalli County, in Montana due to the court's denial of her request to waive court costs and fees for inability to pay. Deschamps filed a petition for dissolution with a proposed parenting plan in the District Court and also filed a Statement of Inability to Pay Court Costs and Fees, requesting waiver of the filing fee. However, the District Court denied her fee waiver stating that her statement was incomplete.Deschamps submitted another statement which was again denied by the District Court. She then moved the court for reconsideration of its denial, explaining that she had checked boxes on the form indicating that she received certain benefits and thus did not need to include additional information, as stated on the form. This motion was also denied.Deschamps petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of Montana for supervisory control, arguing that the District Court erred in denying her request to waive court costs and fees. The Supreme Court held that the District Court erred as a matter of law by requiring Deschamps to provide information beyond that which the Department of Justice requires. The court concluded that the District Court was incorrect when it deemed Deschamps’s fee waiver application “incomplete” because she completed the form by checking the boxes for specific benefits and signing the declaration.The Supreme Court accepted and granted Deschamps' petition for a Writ of Supervisory Control and remanded the matter to the District Court for the purpose of granting Deschamps’ request for waiver of court costs and fees and allowing her case to proceed without payment of filing fee. View "Deschamps v. 21st Judicial District Court" on Justia Law

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In the case, Jose Martinez Jr. was convicted by a jury in the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, for two counts of incest, criminal distribution of dangerous drugs, solicitation to commit tampering with witnesses or informants, and three counts of criminal contempt. This case arose from allegations by Martinez's stepdaughter, S.M., that he had been sexually abusing her since she was 10 years old. The trial court allowed the admission of statements made by S.M. to a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) and a physician, despite Martinez's objection that their admission violated his right of confrontation as S.M. was not present to testify at the trial.The Supreme Court of Montana affirmed Martinez's conviction. It held that S.M.'s statements to the physician were nontestimonial and made for purposes of medical treatment, and thus, were admissible under Montana Rule of Evidence 803(4). However, the court found that S.M.'s statements to the SANE were testimonial and their admission violated Martinez's right to confrontation. Nevertheless, the court ruled that this error was harmless given other evidence produced at trial and because the SANE's testimony was cumulative.The court's decision reflected the distinction between testimonial and nontestimonial statements in the context of the right to confrontation, and the admissibility of statements for purposes of medical treatment under the rules of evidence. The court also demonstrated the application of the harmless error doctrine in the context of a Confrontation Clause violation. View "State v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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This case before the Supreme Court of the State of Montana involves Anthony Reed, the petitioner and appellant, and Catherine Martin, the respondent and appellee. The two parties share a child, L.R., born in 2013. After their separation in 2015, the child has primarily resided with Martin, with Anthony having limited, supervised visitation rights. Anthony has sought to modify the parenting plan on multiple occasions, asserting that his circumstances and those of L.R. have changed significantly over the years, but the District Court has denied his motions.Anthony's assertions of changed circumstances include his graduation from law school, passing of the bar exam, gainful employment as an attorney, entering a committed relationship, and undergoing therapy. He also asserts that L.R.'s growth and development from a toddler to a 10-year-old, his desire to interact with Anthony at his home and in the community, and Martin's alleged parental alienation constitute changes in L.R's circumstances.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana held that Anthony has met his burden under § 40-4-219(1), MCA, that a change of circumstances of the child has occurred, and that the District Court's failure to hold a hearing and finding otherwise was clearly erroneous. The Court reversed the District Court's denial of Anthony's motion to modify the parenting plan and remanded the case for a hearing to consider amendment of the parenting plan in L.R.'s best interests. The Court also stated that it appears appropriate for the District Court to order a parenting evaluation and, if deemed necessary, appoint a Guardian Ad Litem. View "In re Parenting of L.R." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court terminating Mother's parental rights to Daughter, holding that the district court did not err or abuse its discretion.Following a hearing, the district court held that it was in Daughter's best interest to terminate Mother's parental rights. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) Mother failed to show that the Department's failure to insist on a written response prejudiced Mother's substantial rights; (2) a district court's failure to comply with statutory requirements for adjudication as youth in need of care has no effect on the court's jurisdiction to hear and determine a petition of parental rights, and the district court in this case did not commit legal error by proceeding on the termination petition; (3) Mother's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel failed; and (4) the district court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that termination, as opposed to guardianship, was appropriate. View "In re Z.N-M." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgments of the district court adjudicating a parental interest and accompanying parenting plan regarding Father's minor child in favor of his non-parent ex-wife (Surrogate), holding that the district court erroneously made a child custody parenting plan determination involving a non-parent without the predicate parental interest implied as a condition precedent to imposition of a best interests-based parenting plan.Specifically, the Supreme Court held that the district court (1) correctly concluded that the preclusive terms of a gestational carrier agreement did not preclude Surrogate from later acquiring or establishing a parental interest and right to the extent independently authorized under Montana law; (2) did not err in finding and concluding that Father voluntarily signed the premarital agreement and that it ws thus a validly formed and enforceable contract; (3) did not erroneously reject Father’s assertion that the parent-child relationship provision was unenforceable as equitably unconscionable; and (4) erroneously adjudicated a non parent "parental interest" in favor of Surrogate without the required predicated finding of fact specified by Mont. Code Ann. 40-4-228(2)(a). View "Sayler v. Yan Sun" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court terminating Mother's parental rights to R.K., holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it terminated Mother's parental rights.After a termination hearing, the district court concluded that the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Child and Family Services Division met its burden of presenting clear and convincing evidence regarding all required elements for the termination of MOther's rights and that it was in R.K.'s best interests to terminate Mother's parental rights. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Mother's failure to complete her treatment plan and to maintain consistent vision with R.K. to reestablish a parent-child relationship supported the district court's judgment terminating Mother's parental rights. View "In re R.K." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court granting guardianship over L.S. and A.S. to David Sammons, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion.In granting guardianship, the district court concluded that L.S.'s and A.S.'s welfare and best interests would best be served if Sammons was appointed as their sole respective guardian. On appeal, Mother argued that the court incorrectly applied the "best interest" standards set forth by Mont. Code Ann. 40-4-212 and -291 and the standards set forth by Mont. Code Ann. 40-4-228 for appointing a temporary guardian. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that there was no basis for the conclusion that the district court acted arbitrarily, without conscientious judgment, or in excess of the bounds of reason in appointing temporary guardianship of L.S. and A.S. to Sammons. View "In re Guardianship of L.R.T.S." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court granting petitions made by Lorri Williams to formally probate the estate of Gerry Williams, her ex-husband, and to remove Vicki Hofedlt as personal representative of Gerry's estate, holding that the district court did not err or abuse its discretion.Gerry and Lorri had two daughters, Brittany Williams and Vicki, during their marriage and later divorced. After Gerry died, Lorri paid for his funeral expenses. Vicki then filed an application for informal probate. Lorri filed a creditor's claim claiming funeral expenses and then filed a petition for formal probate asserting that the divorce decree was a testamentary instrument that needed to be probated along with Gerry's will. Lorri also filed a petition to remove Vicki as personal representative of Gerry's estate. The district court granted both petitions. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Vicki was not entitled to relief on her claims of error. View "In re Estate of Williams" on Justia Law