Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Dakota Supreme Court
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Charles Joseph Burkard sued Tami Jo Burkard for divorce in 2012, and they agreed to share joint legal and physical custody of their two children, with Charles paying $1,000 per month in child support. In 2022, their daughter began living full-time with Tami, prompting Tami to seek a modification of child support. The child support referee calculated Charles's new obligation using a hybrid formula, resulting in a monthly payment of $1,465.58. Tami objected, arguing for a different calculation method.The Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit in Lincoln County, South Dakota, held a hearing and admitted new testimony from a child support referee, Tom Keller, over Tami's objections. The court ultimately adopted the referee's hybrid formula for calculating child support, despite Tami's argument that it did not align with statutory guidelines and inflated Charles's obligation.The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota reviewed the case. It found that the circuit court erred in admitting Keller's testimony, as it violated SDCL 25-7A-22, which confines evidence to the record established before the referee. However, this error was deemed non-prejudicial because the circuit court's decision was based on the referee's initial report and recommendation.The Supreme Court held that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in adopting the referee's child support calculation, as it was within a reasonable range of potential awards. However, due to discrepancies in the parties' stated income and health insurance amounts, the case was remanded for further calculations. The main holding affirmed the child support amount but required recalculations to address income discrepancies. View "Burkard v. Burkard" on Justia Law

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The case involves a dispute between Julie and Gary Liebel, who married in 2010 and divorced in 2022. Prior to their marriage, they had signed a premarital agreement stating that each party's assets would remain separate and under their sole control, even after the marriage. The agreement also stated that neither party would acquire any interest in the other's property due to the marriage. The couple divorced on the grounds of adultery, and the circuit court applied the premarital agreement in dividing their assets. Julie appealed, arguing that the court erred in applying the agreement to the property division in the divorce and abused its discretion in classifying and distributing the parties’ property.The circuit court had found the premarital agreement to be valid and enforceable in the context of divorce. It also found that the agreement unambiguously governed the division of property in the event of divorce. The court treated the marital home, which was held jointly, as marital property, but most of the remaining property was treated as nonmarital. Gary received the bulk of the nonmarital property valued at $713,705. Upon division of the net marital assets, Julie was awarded marital property valued at $35,482, while Gary received marital property valued at $134,535. The court ordered Gary to make a cash equalization payment to Julie in the amount of $49,526, less $2,062.80 in attorney fees awarded to Gary for defending a protection order that the court determined Julie filed maliciously.The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota affirmed the lower court's decision. It found that the premarital agreement unambiguously provided that neither spouse may claim an interest in the separate property of the other, whether it was acquired before or during the marriage. This could only be understood to mean that the other spouse would not obtain any interest in separately owned property under any circumstances, including divorce, unless mutually agreed to by creating a joint tenancy in any property. The court also found no abuse of discretion in the lower court's division of property. View "Liebel v. Liebel" on Justia Law

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The case involves Wesley Castle's petition to adopt his stepchildren, I.V.E., C.A.E., and L.A.E. The children's biological father and ex-husband of Wesley's wife, Isaac Ellsaesser, objected to the petition, arguing that he does not consent to the adoption and that his consent cannot be waived under SDCL 25-6-4. The children's mother, Frances, had previously divorced Isaac due to a toxic and abusive relationship. Isaac had struggled with alcohol addiction and had faced domestic abuse charges. After the divorce, Isaac completed treatment for his addiction and attempted to reestablish a relationship with his children.The Circuit Court of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Lawrence County, South Dakota, held an evidentiary hearing on whether Isaac’s consent could be waived. The court determined that Wesley did not prove any of the statutory grounds for waiver by clear and convincing evidence. The court entered an order denying Wesley’s petition, and Wesley appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota.The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that Wesley failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that Isaac had substantially and continuously neglected his children or willfully neglected to pay child support. The court noted that Isaac had made several concerted efforts to reestablish a parental relationship with his children and had begun making child support payments after determining the amount he owed in arrears and how to pay. The court concluded that Isaac's failure to pay child support could not be considered willful under the circumstances. View "In the Matter of the Adoption of I.V.E." on Justia Law

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A South Dakota resident, Abby Engel, commenced a divorce action against nonresident defendant Collin Geary in South Dakota. Geary objected to the jurisdiction of the South Dakota court and the sufficiency of the service of process. The court dismissed Geary’s objections and entered a divorce judgment in Engel's favor, dividing the couple's property and imposing certain financial obligations on Geary. Geary appealed, arguing that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him and thus could not make orders affecting him or his property interests.The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota reversed the lower court's decision. The Court found that the lower court lacked personal jurisdiction over Geary as he had not purposefully availed himself of the privilege of conducting activities in South Dakota, and the cause of action did not arise from his activities directed at South Dakota. The Court also determined that the lower court erred when it divided the parties' property and imposed financial obligations on Geary, despite lacking personal jurisdiction over him. The Court concluded that while the lower court had jurisdiction to grant Engel a divorce, it did not have jurisdiction to adjudicate Geary's property interests or impose financial obligations on him. View "Engel V. Geary" on Justia Law

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In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota, the dispute involves a married couple, Michael Erickson and Tara Erickson, who got divorced and had a stipulation and agreement (the Agreement) incorporated into their divorce decree, to settle matters such as child support and custody. Tara claimed the couple's two minor children as dependents on her tax returns since 2018, believing the Agreement allowed her to do so. However, in 2022, Michael argued that he was entitled to claim the children as dependents per the Agreement's language and moved to enforce the Agreement and hold Tara in contempt. In turn, Tara moved to modify the divorce decree and Agreement, alleging a mistake in the language Michael cited.The circuit court found that the provision of the Agreement upon which Michael relied was due to a drafting error, denied Michael’s requests, and granted Tara’s motion to revise the Agreement and her request for attorney fees. The Supreme Court of South Dakota affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings. The Court agreed with the circuit court that the Agreement was ambiguous and that, based on the parties' intent shown through parol evidence, Tara was meant to be the one to claim the children as dependents. Therefore, the Court found that Tara did not willfully disobey the court order as Michael alleged. However, the Court reversed the circuit court's award of attorney fees to Tara, finding that it did not make the necessary findings to support the reasonableness of the fees. The case was remanded for further proceedings on this issue. View "Erickson V. Erickson" on Justia Law

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In this case heard by the Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota, Ivan and Donita Weber, who were married for less than four years, sought a divorce. Prior to their marriage, Donita owned significant assets, including a valuable farmland. During their marriage, the couple co-mingled and jointly titled most of their assets, including the farmland. They worked on and made improvements to the farm before selling it and most of the accompanying assets for approximately $2.5 million. Upon divorce, the circuit court treated most of the parties’ property as marital but awarded Donita a much larger share. Ivan appealed, arguing that the circuit court abused its discretion in dividing the marital assets and in failing to award him spousal support.The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota affirmed the lower court's decision. The court found that the circuit court appropriately considered the relevant factors, including the duration of the marriage, the value of the property owned by the parties, their ages, health, ability to earn a living, the contribution of each party to the accumulation of the property, and the income-producing capacity of the parties’ assets. The court found that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in dividing the marital property, given the short length of their marriage and the fact that Donita brought in significantly more assets into the marriage than Ivan.Regarding Ivan's argument for spousal support, the court found that Ivan had waived his right to appeal this issue because he failed to present any issue concerning spousal support to the circuit court. Therefore, the court declined to award Ivan any attorney fees and awarded $5,000 in appellate attorney fees to Donita. View "Weber V. Weber" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court dismissed these two appeals involving unrelated juvenile adjudications and dispositions, holding that this Court lacked appellate jurisdiction over S.A.'s and E.B.'s respective appeals.At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the Court had appellate jurisdiction where the juveniles - S.A. and E.B. - failed properly to serve the notices of appeal on their parents. The Supreme Court dismissed both appeals, holding (1) S.A. and E.B. were required to timely serve their parents because parents are parties in juvenile delinquency proceedings; and (2) because both juveniles failed timely to show service of their notices of appeal on all parties, this Court lacked appellate jurisdiction. View "In re S.A." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the circuit court that it did not have statutory authority to terminate Father's parental rights against his wishes in the absence of an adoption, holding that S.D. Codified Laws 25-5A cannot be used to involuntarily terminate a parent's rights without a corresponding adoption.Mother filed a petition under chapter 25-5A seeking the involuntary termination of Father's parental rights, arguing that the termination was in the best interests of the parties' children and that Father's consent to the termination could not be waived. The circuit court denied the petition after an evidentiary hearing. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the circuit court did not err in determining that chapter 25-5A cannot be used to involuntarily terminate a parent's parental rights. View "In re Interest of I.A.D." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court granting Mother primary physical custody of the parties' two children in this case, holding that the circuit court's child custody determination was within the range of permissible choices and was supported by competent evidence.Mother and Father were never married and shared two children together. Father eventually petitioned for "Interim and Primary Custody, Child Support, and Paternity" determinations. Following a trial, the circuit court concluded that it would be in the children's best interests to grant Mother primary custody with Father having parenting time. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the circuit court (1) did not err in declaring the S.D. Codified Laws 25-4-45.5 presumption to have been rebutted; and (2) did not give too much weight to its primary caretaker determination. View "Harwood v. Chamley" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the circuit court in this divorce action, holding that there was error in the division of the parties' marital property and in the spousal support award.After seventeen years of marriage Husband commenced a divorce against Wife. Wife filed a counterclaim seeking separate maintenance and requesting that the divorce be postponed until she began eligible to receive lifetime TRICARE health care coverage. The trial court granted made an equitable division of marital property, granted Wife a decree of separate maintenance, and awarded her permanent alimony. The Supreme Court reversed in part, holding (1) the circuit court did not abuse its discretion by denying the entry of a divorce decree until after twenty years of marriage and by granting a decree of separate maintenance; (2) the circuit court lacked the authority to enter an equitable division of the marital property in the separate maintenance proceeding; and (3) on remand, the circuit court should consider the question of spousal support in light of the property division. View "Lefors v. Lefors" on Justia Law