Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court

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Jane Doe appealed a family court's order declaring her to be a "vulnerable adult" and in need of protective services pursuant to the South Carolina Omnibus Adult Protection Act. Doe contended the South Carolina Department of Social Services ("DSS") failed to prove that she was at substantial risk of neglect due solely to her advanced age. Doe wanted reversal of the family court's order so that she may be released from involuntary protective custody and returned to her home. Because the Supreme Court found that Doe did not meet the statutory definition of a vulnerable adult under the Act, the Court reversed. However, because there may have been significant changes to Doe's physical and mental health and to the condition of Doe's home during the pendency of this appeal, the Court remanded the case in order for the family court to conduct a review hearing to assess the current status of Doe's case. View "In the Interest of Jane Doe" on Justia Law

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In an expedited appeal, Michelle G. challenged the termination of her parental rights to two of her three sons. The family court terminated her rights as to two, and denied the mother's motion to dismiss on grounds that section 63-7-2570(1) was unconstitutionally vague. On appeal, the mother argued that the TPR statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment and was void for vagueness. After review of the facts of this case, the Supreme Court found no reversible error, and affirmed the family court's termination decision. View "SCDSS v. Michelle G." on Justia Law

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Jetter Pittman (Husband) and Gloria Pittman (Wife) were married in April 2000 and separated in March 2007. Wife petitioned for divorce on adultery grounds. Wife argued to the family court that Husband's land surveying business, Pittman Professional Land Surveying, Inc., was transmuted into marital property and was thus subject to equitable apportionment. Husband challenged the court of appeals' decision that affirmed the family court's finding of transmutation, which resulted in the inclusion of the land surveying business in the marital estate. Although the Supreme Court found the court of appeals erred in affirming the family court's reliance on the parties' premarital conduct in the transmutation analysis, it nevertheless affirmed based on the parties' conduct during the marriage. The Supreme Court found the evidence supported the finding that the parties intended the land surveying business to be the common property of the marriage. View "Pittman v. Pittman" on Justia Law

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Father appealed his conviction for sexually abusing his two young daughters. He challenged the trial court's order requiring that he be entered on the Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect, and that prohibited him from visiting his four children until successful completion of a treatment plan. Father argued the family court erred in its interpretation of S.C. Code Ann. 19-1-180 (Supp. 2012) and in permitting the playing of videotape forensic interviews of the non-testifying child victims. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court concluded the videotapes were inadmissible under 19-1-180(G) and reversed. View "SCDSS v. Pringle" on Justia Law

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This action involved competing claims to the retirement benefits of the late Thomas Sullivan, a former National Football League (NFL) running back for the Philadelphia Eagles. Thomas married Lavona Hill in Maryland in 1979. They separated in 1983, but never divorced. In 1986, Thomas purported to marry Barbara Sullivan in South Carolina. Sullivan was unaware of Thomas' prior marriage to Hill. In 1991, Thomas submitted pension forms to the NFL indicating Sullivan was his current spouse. Thomas died in 2002. Thereafter, Sullivan filed a claim with the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (the Plan), which provided benefits to a player's surviving spouse, defining the term as "a [p]layer's lawful spouse, as recognized under applicable state law." In November 2002, the Plan began paying Sullivan monthly benefits. Four years later, Hill contacted the Plan to request benefits. Following an investigation, the Plan suspended payments to Sullivan pending a court order identifying Thomas's surviving spouse. After Hill failed to obtain that order, the Plan resumed payments to Sullivan. In 2009, Hill filed this action against the Plan in Pennsylvania state court, claiming entitlement to Thomas's retirement benefits. The Plan promptly removed the case to federal district court and filed an interpleader counterclaim, joining Sullivan as a party. The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question to the South Carolina Supreme Court over whether South Carolina law recognized the "putative spouse" or "putative marriage" doctrine. The Supreme Court answered the certified question "no." View "Hill v. Bell" on Justia Law

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Suits were filed in Alabama and South Carolina in this divorce case. In 2007, the husband filed for divorce in Alabama, alleging he was a resident of Alabama, and his wife was a resident of South Carolina. Wife accepted service of the complaint, but approximately one month later, sued in South Carolina effectively responding point for point to the husband's Alabama case. After the wife's attempts to serve her husband failed, she was permitted to serve her husband by publication in Alabama. The husband never responded to her pleading. An Alabama attorney filed a limited notice of appearance on the wife's behalf in Alabama, challenging jurisdiction and moving the court to dismiss the husband's complaint. The Alabama court denied the wife's motion and set the matter for trial. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, the court awarded the wife alimony and divided the marital property. The South Carolina court found it had jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter jurisdiction over the division of property, noting the husband's Alabama attorney sought to have the South Carolina action dismissed, but was not admitted pro hac vice in South Carolina, and therefore did not respond to husband's motion. A hearing was held in Alabama; wife's counsel had withdrawn and was not replaced. The Alabama court found it had jurisdiction over the parties and their property, declared the South Carolina judgment null and void, and divided the parties' marital property. With his Alabama judgment, the husband filed a Rule 60(b) motion in South Carolina to have wife's judgment vacated. Upon review, the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded: the Alabama court's grant of divorce should be given full faith and credit; the wife was not entitled to bring her South Carolina action for division of property or attorney's fees; by making a limited appearance in Alabama, wife was bound by Alabama law, and abandoned her opportunity to contest personal jurisdiction there. Since Alabama would have given its order res judicata effect, it was entitled to full faith and credit. Therefore, the husband's Rule 60(b) motion the South Carolina orders should have been granted. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Ware v. Ware" on Justia Law

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In March of 2007, Mother gave birth to Child. Five months later, the Pickens County Department of Social Services (DSS) received a report of neglect from a sheriff's deputy. Three families (six adults and eleven children) resided in Child's home, trash was overflowing, moldy dishes and food were strewn about, Mother and Father admitted to using cocaine, and Child had a visibly flat head which Mother explained resulted from her being left in a car seat for extended periods. Mother also admitted that Child had received her immunizations from the health department, but had not seen a doctor since birth. DSS filed a complaint for removal of Child and her older half-sister (Sister) due to abuse and neglect. The following day, Child tested positive for cocaine. Child and Sister were removed from the home and placed in emergency protective custody. A week later, Child was placed with the Appellants the Brooms for foster care. Following a hearing, the family court found probable cause for removal of Child based on the positive drug test and Mother's admission of substance abuse. The court also gave legal custody of Child to DSS and directed the appointment of counsel for Mother. At some point thereafter an attorney was appointed to represent Mother. "This would [have been] a straightforward appeal in a termination of parental rights action but for the fact that the mother whose rights were terminated was erroneously denied counsel." Because, after its review, the Supreme Court held that the Mother was not prejudiced by the error, the grounds for termination were established by clear and convincing evidence, and termination was in the child's best interest. Accordingly, the Court affirmed. View "Broom v. Derrick" on Justia Law

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The parties lived together as husband and wife for thirty years, enjoying a comfortable standard of living and raising two sons. Following the onset of serious health problems for both, they ultimately separated, and it became the task of the family court judge to identify and divide their rather estate and dissolve their marriage in an equitable fashion. Among other issues, the issue before the Supreme Court on appeal in this matter was whether trust distributions could be marital property, and after review, the Court held that they can in certain limited circumstances. Furthermore, while the Court affirmed the majority of the family court's equitable division, the Court reversed the inclusion of one tract of timber as marital property and the reservation of alimony to the wife. The Court modified that portion of the order which required the husband to pay for the wife's attorney's fees and costs. View "Wilburn v. Wilburn" on Justia Law

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Sarah W. (Mother) is the biological mother of a minor boy and a minor girl. In 2007, Mother and the children's father, Vaughn S. (Father; parents collectively, defendants), and the children resided in a home without heat, electricity, or running water. Mother arranged for her brother and sister-in-law, Thomas W. and Brittney W., to take primary responsibility for the children. The South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) requested that the family court issue an ex parte order granting DSS emergency protective custody of Boy. DSS alleged it had probable cause to believe that Boy faced imminent and substantial danger to his health or physical safety. The family court agreed, basing its determination on the fact that Defendants were "unable to provided[sic] even marginally suitable housing" for Boy, and finding that Thomas W. and Brittney W. "apparently abused a sibling" of Boy. The family court awarded emergency protective custody to DSS. The family court held a probable cause hearing and found sufficient probable cause to issue the ex parte order. The family court also found that Thomas W. and Brittney W. were no longer willing to maintain custody of Girl, and the court ordered DSS to take emergency protective custody of Girl. Ultimately DSS moved to terminate Mother's rights to both children; the appellate court disagreed with the trial court and reversed. Upon further review, the Supreme Court held that the trial court properly terminated Mother's parental rights, and reversed the appellate court. View "SCDSS v. Sarah W." on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case was whether former foster parents had standing to petition to adopt a child placed for adoption by the Department of Social Services (DSS) with a different family. Upon review of the trial court record in this case, the Supreme Court concluded that the former foster parents possessed neither statutory or constitutional standing, and therefore vacated the order that granted the parents' petition, and remanded custody of the child to DSS for adoptive placement. "[R]ecognizing that children develop rapidly, and that stability and attachment are important components in their growth and development, [the Court directed] DSS to consider [the] child's present best interests in placing her for adoption." View "Youngblood v. South Carolina Dep't of Soc. Svcs" on Justia Law