Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court

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This case initially came to the South Carolina Supreme Court for consideration of whether an order from a bifurcated hearing determining the existence of a common-law marriage was immediately appealable. The Court held it was, and retained jurisdiction to consider the merits. Now, the Court considered whether the family court was correct in finding Susan Thompson and Marion Stone were common-law married in 1989, as well as whether Stone was entitled to an award of attorney's fees. In taking stock of common law in South Carolina, the Supreme Court concluded the institution's foundations have eroded with the passage of time, “and the outcomes it produces are unpredictable and often convoluted” and “the time has come to join the overwhelming national trend and abolish it.” The Court held that as of the date of this opinion, parties could no longer enter into a valid marriage in South Carolina without a license. Specific to this case, the Court did not believe Stone demonstrated the mutual assent required to prove a common-law marriage, and as a result, the Court held the parties were not married and reversed the family court on the merits and as to the issue of attorney's fees. View "Stone v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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The parties, Stone and Thompson, met in 1983 and began a romantic relationship. Thompson was married to another man at the time and obtained a divorce in 1987. Later that year, Stone and Thompson had their first child. After Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, South Carolina in 1989, the parties had their second child and started living together. They continued to live, raise their children, and manage rental properties together for approximately 20 years, but ultimately ended their relationship after Thompson discovered Stone was having an affair with a woman in Costa Rica. In 2012, Stone filed an amended complaint in family court alleging, inter alia, he was entitled to a declaratory judgment that the parties were common-law married, a divorce, and an equitable distribution of alleged marital property. Thompson contended the parties were not common-law married, asserted several counterclaims, and sought dismissal of the case. If the trial court would not dismiss the case, Thompson sought to bifurcate the issues to first determine whether the parties were common-law married. After a hearing, the family court denied Thompson's motion to dismiss but granted her motion to bifurcate, ordering a trial on the sole issue of whether a common-law marriage existed between the parties. The court reasoned that, should it determine no marriage existed, it would not need to address the other issues in the case. The issue this appeal presented for the South Carolina Supreme Court’s review was whether the trial court order finding a common-law marriage, was immediately appealable under the general appealability statute, S.C. Code Ann. 14-3-330. The court of appeals held the order was interlocutory because it did not end the case, and further, that it was not immediately appealable under the statute. The Supreme Court concluded that because the order involved the merits of the causes of action, it reversed. View "Stone v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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Although the trial court acknowledged Respondent Irene Sweeney would receive substantial income from her share of an investment account, it granted her alimony. The court of appeals affirmed, noting the family court extensively analyzed the statutory factors governing alimony. The issue for the South Carolina Supreme Court’s resolution centered on whether the family court adequately considered the projected growth of a party's liquid assets apportioned through equitable division in awarding alimony. The Supreme Court affirmed the family court’s judgment, taking the opportunity to clarify that in determining alimony, family courts should consider the effect of investment income on both parties. View "Sweeney v. Sweeney" on Justia Law

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Petitioners Edward and Tammy Dalsing (Foster Parents) sought to adopt a young girl (Child). Foster Parents' private action for termination of parental rights (TPR) and adoption was consolidated with the South Carolina Department of Social Services' removal action against Erica Smith (Mother) and Andrew Myers (Father). At the final hearing, the family court: (1) adopted the permanent plan of TPR and adoption; (2) terminated Mother's parental rights; (3) found Father was not a person whose consent was required for Child's adoption, but as a further sustaining ground, terminated Father's parental rights; and (4) granted Foster Parents' petition for adoption. Father appealed, and the court of appeals vacated in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the family court for a new permanency planning hearing. The court of appeals ruled the family court erred in terminating Father's parental rights, finding Foster Parents failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence a statutory ground for TPR existed. The court of appeals found the record did not contain clear and convincing evidence to show that Father abandoned Child, willfully failed to visit Child, or willfully failed to support Child. The court of appeals remanded the matter to the family court for a new permanency planning hearing. The South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. “Although the court of appeals' list of actions taken by Father may appear sufficient to find clear and convincing evidence did not support this statutory ground for TPR, a close analysis of the record reveals otherwise. Several of the actions listed separately by the court of appeals were not actually separate and distinct actions, but rather occurred within a month's time of one another, and approximately one year after Child's birth.” The Court found the trial court record contained clear and convincing evidence that Father abandoned Child. The Court therefore reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the family court's grant of adoption to Foster Parents. View "So. Carolina Dept. Social Svcs v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Nila Collean Carter sought to revoke her consent to the adoption of her two biological children. Throughout the proceedings, Petitioner was never provided an opportunity to be heard on the merits of her claim before the adoption was finalized. The South Carolina Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' unpublished decision affirming the family court's denial of Petitioner's motion to set aside the final adoption decree pursuant to Rule 60(b), SCRCP. Because Petitioner's Rule 60(b) motion was timely filed and sufficiently alleged extrinsic fraud, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded this matter to the family court for further proceedings. View "Ex Parte: Carter" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Nila Carter sought to revoke her consent to the adoption of her two biological children. Petitioner was never provided an opportunity to be heard on the merits of her claim before the adoption was finalized. The South Carolina Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' unpublished decision affirming the family court's denial of Petitioner's motion to set aside the final adoption decree pursuant to Rule 60(b), SCRCP. Because Petitioner's Rule 60(b) motion was timely filed and sufficiently alleged extrinsic fraud, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded this matter to the family court for further proceedings. View "Ex Parte: Carter" on Justia Law

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In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide whether Petitioners Edward and Tammy Dalsing had standing to pursue a private action to adopt a child who had been placed in their foster care by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS). Law enforcement took the minor child (Child) into emergency protective custody after discovering an active methamphetamine lab outside the home where Child resided with Allyssa and Jonathan Boulware. Child was sunburned, had several insect bites, suffered from severe diaper rash, and tested positive for methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana. DSS placed Child in foster care with Petitioners on the same day and then commenced an abuse and neglect removal action. Child's biological parents were Allyssa Boulware and John Stafford (Parents), and Child's legal father by marriage is Jonathan Boulware. The instant controversy began when DSS and Parents reached an agreement for Child to be placed with relatives Darryl and Ruth Ann Armstrong (Aunt and Uncle) in order to give Parents more time to work on a treatment plan. The proposed placement with Aunt and Uncle was not an adoptive placement. DSS intended to close its case after Parents completed the treatment plan. Petitioners immediately moved to intervene in DSS's removal action and commenced a private TPR and adoption action. The family court held a second permanency planning hearing, but declined to rule on DSS's new permanent plan of relative placement with Aunt and Uncle until the court ruled on Petitioners' motion to intervene. The family court found Petitioners did not have standing, and the court of appeals affirmed. S.C. Dep't of Soc. Servs. v. Boulware. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded to the family court, concluding Petitioners had standing to pursue a private adoption under the facts of this case. View "S.C. Dep't of Soc. Servs. v. Boulware" on Justia Law

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Diane and Otis Bass had three children: Brittany, Hanna, and Alex. All three children were special needs, but Hanna and Alex were also autistic. Otis worked outside the home, and Diane cared for the children. Due to their forms of autism and their other cognitive issues, both Hanna and Alex were prescribed Clonidine to help them sleep at night, in addition to other medications. A compounding pharmacy filled the Clonidine prescription. In April 2008, the prescription was inadvertently mixed at one thousand times the recommended concentration. Diane administered the wrongly compounded Clonidine to Hanna and later to Alex. Both children had serious reactions that required hospitalization. DSS received a report that two special needs children were in the hospital due to "possible poisoning by parents." The agency assigned an overall danger rating of "medium" to the case. A caseworker assigned to the case recommended the children be removed from the Bass home and placed with Diane's sister, Linda. Linda would later learn that the compounding pharmacy improperly filled the Clonidine prescription. Linda notified DSS, and the agency subsequently concluded that the medication was the cause of the children's hospitalization. This revelation led to the eventual return of the children to Diane and Otis. However, DSS continued to make announced and unannounced visits at the Bass home through the end of 2008 and refused to remove its finding that Diane and Otis "harmed their children" from the agency's file on Petitioners. Petitioners filed a lawsuit against DSS, the compounding pharmacy, and the pharmacist, alleging negligence and gross negligence, and seeking actual and punitive damages. After settling with the pharmacy and the pharmacist, Petitioners served DSS with an amended complaint alleging causes of action for gross negligence, defamation, and outrage, and sought actual damages. DSS moved for a directed verdict at the conclusion of Petitioners' case, and again at the conclusion of all of the evidence. The trial judge denied both motions. At the conclusion of the evidence, Petitioners withdrew their defamation cause of action, and moved for a directed verdict regarding DSS's defenses of discretionary immunity and negligence of a third party. The trial judge granted Petitioners' motions for directed verdict as to those defenses. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for Petitioners, and awarded them $4 million in damages. DSS subsequently filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), for new trial absolute, and to reduce the verdict. The trial court issued an order denying DSS's post-trial motions. However, the trial court granted DSS's motion to reduce the verdict. The court of appeals reversed the jury's verdict. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, finding the trial court did not err in its decision. View "Bass v. SCDSS" on Justia Law

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In August 2012, then-sixteen-year-old Appellant Stephen W. was charged with possession of marijuana. At the adjudicatory hearing, Appellant moved for a jury trial, claiming that he was entitled to a jury trial under the United States and South Carolina Constitutions. The family court denied Appellant's motion. The family court adjudicated Appellant delinquent and ordered that Appellant spend six consecutive weekends at the Department of Juvenile Justice, complete an alternative educational program, and continue with his prior probation for a period of time not to exceed his eighteenth birthday or until he obtained a G.E.D. Appellant directly appealed to the Supreme Court. He argued that the family court erred in denying his motion for a jury trial in a family court juvenile proceeding. Because there was no constitutional right to a jury trial in a family court juvenile proceeding, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Interest of Stephen W." on Justia Law

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Appellant-wife Shirley Crossland contended on appeal to the Supreme Court that the court of appeals erred in reversing the family court's award of alimony, in modifying the equitable division of the marital estate, and in remanded an issue over attorney fees. With regard to the alimony issue, Wife argued the court of appeals erred in holding that, for the purposes of awarding alimony, income should be imputed to her based on her eligibility for social security retirement benefits she has not applied to receive. "Indeed, the family court may, but is not in all cases required to, consider eligibility for government benefits, and under the circumstances of this case, the family court did not commit reversible error. Thus the court of appeals erred in finding the family court was required to impute income to Wife based on social security benefits she is eligible to receive at age sixty-two. Although voluntary decreases in income may prompt a family court to consider a party's earning capacity instead of actual income, it is clear that 'the failure to reach earning capacity, by itself, does not automatically equate to voluntary underemployment such that income must be imputed.'" The Supreme Court agreed with Wife with regard to her remaining issues, reversed, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Crossland v. Crossland" on Justia Law