Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama
Smith v. Alexander, et al.
Steven Smith, as conservator of the estate of B.J. (minor), appealed a circuit court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants Elizabeth Alexander, Amanda Buchanan, and Michael Key on Smith's claims alleging violations of policies promulgated by the State Department of Human Resources ("the State DHR"), negligence, wantonness, and the tort of outrage. In May 2015, Key was employed by the Cullman County DHR as a foster-care supervisor, responsible for supervising Cullman County DHR caseworkers. Key reported to Buchanan, who oversaw the Child Family Services Program, the Child Protective Services Program, and the Foster Care Program for the Cullman County DHR. Buchanan in turn reported to Alexander, the director of the Cullman County DHR. B.J. was placed in the custody of the Cullman County DHR when he was three years old after having suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect at the hands of family members. In 2002, the trial court awarded the Cullman County DHR legal guardianship and permanent custody of B.J. While in the custody of the Cullman County DHR, B.J. was placed in a number of foster homes, group homes, residential facilities, hospitals, and psychiatric institutions. In July 2014, B.J. was placed by the Cullman County DHR at the Altapointe Group Home. While there, B.J. underwent an assessment, which revealed he had regularly exhibited violent outbursts and physically aggressive behavior toward others; he had a history of depression, suicide and delusional thinking; and engaged in impulsive and delinquent behavior. B.J. would ultimately be arrested for such behavior towards others. B.J. had personal funds with which he could post bail, but the decision was made he should have remained in jail pending an arrangement for further mental health counseling. Smith argued defendants' decisions leaving B.J. incarcerated did not follow departmental policies of least-restrictive-placement-possible, and as such, caused B.J. irreparable harm. The Alabama Supreme Court found that each crucial decision made by the defendants -- i.e., the decisions not to place B.J. at the Gateway facility and not to post B.J.'s bond before his court date -- were made with B.J.'s best interests in mind after consideration of all the relevant recommendations and factors. Accordingly, Smith failed to provide substantial evidence demonstrating that the defendants acted willfully in dealing with B.J. and that, therefore, they were not entitled to the protection of State-agent immunity. View "Smith v. Alexander, et al." on Justia Law
Wheeler v. Marvin
Karen Wheeler, as administrator of the estate of Eugene Drayton, appealed a probate court judgment declaring Kristin Marvin was the biological child of Drayton, and was therefore an heir of Drayton for purposes of intestate succession. The probate court appointed Wheeler, who was Drayton's daughter, as the administrator of Drayton's estate. In her filings with the probate court, Wheeler identified herself and her brother as Drayton's only heirs. Marvin, however, later filed a petition with the probate court in which she claimed to also be a biological child of Drayton. She requested that the probate court consider the results of a DNA test allegedly showing that Drayton's half brother was Marvin's uncle and, therefore, indicating that Marvin was Drayton's daughter. Wheeler testified that she was unaware that Drayton had any children other than herself and her brother. She asserted that no one, including Drayton, had ever stated to her that Marvin was Drayton's child. Wheeler claimed to have met Marvin for the first time at a funeral held after the death of Drayton's mother, but, she said, Drayton did not introduce them. On appeal, Wheeler argued primarily that the probate court erred in considering the DNA test result, because the DNA samples were collected not by disinterested parties but by Marvin and Curtis, who then mailed them outside the presence of disinterested parties. Wheeler asserts that "there is a possibility that the samples were switched because they were in the exclusive possession of interested parties prior to being mailed to [the laboratory that performed the test]." She points out that the test result itself disclaims any responsibility for how the samples were collected and is based on the assumption that they were collected correctly. The Alabama Supreme Court found after review that Wheeler did not present any authority suggesting that the probate court could not admit and consider the DNA test if it believed the testimony of Curtis and Marvin describing how the DNA samples were collected and submitted. Accordingly, she did not show the probate court erred in considering the DNA test result based on how the samples were collected and submitted. View "Wheeler v. Marvin" on Justia Law
Ex parte Hillard and Warr.
Deborah Hillard and Holland Hillard Warr jointly petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, raising numerous issues. The Court ordered answers and briefs on one issue raised by Warr: whether the circuit court erred in denying her summary-judgment motion on the counterclaim brought against her by her former husband, Rik Tozzi, which Warr claimed was barred by principles of res judicata. Warr specifically requested that the Supreme Court issue the writ of mandamus directing the circuit court to grant her summary-judgment motion. The Court denied the petition as to that issue. "Warr does not provide meaningful discussion of the precedent she cites or the other relevant precedent ... She has not established that the instant case is controlled by opinions holding that a former spouse was barred from pursuing a tort claim against the other former spouse based on conduct that occurred before a divorce. For example, she has not shown that the allegedly tortious acts and omissions surrounding the execution and delivery of the promissory note were fully litigated in the divorce action or that Tozzi's tort allegations were resolved by a settlement agreement entered in the divorce action or by the final divorce judgment." Because Warr did not demonstrate a clear legal right to a judgment in her favor on Tozzi's counterclaim based on principles of res judicata, the Supreme Court denied the petition. View "Ex parte Hillard and Warr." on Justia Law
Ex parte Z.W.E.
Z.W.E., the alleged father of a child ("the child") of L.B. (Mother), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the Court of Civil Appeals' decision in Z.W.E. v. L.B., [Ms. 2180796, June 5, 2020] ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2020), affirming the Jackson Juvenile Court's dismissal of the his petition to establish the paternity of the child. The Supreme Court granted certiorari review to consider, as an issue of first impression, whether the term "child," as used in section 26-17-204(a)(5), Ala. Code 1975, a part of the Alabama Uniform Parentage Act ("the AUPA"), § 26-17-101 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, included unborn children. Z.W.E. and Mother were in a dating relationship and cohabited from February 2018 until August 2018, during which time the child was conceived. However, according to Z.W.E., beginning in mid-November 2018, Mother "refused to have any contact with the [alleged father] or his family." Subsequently, on November 14, 2018, the mother married Z.A.F. S.W.E. petitioned seeking to establish paternity of the child, born December 26, 2018. Mother moved to dismiss, arguing that Z.A.F. was the presumed father under section 26-17-204(a)(1), Ala. Code 1975. Accordingly, the mother argued, the husband's presumption of paternity could not be challenged. The Supreme Court concluded the Court of Civil Appeals did not err in concluding that the plain language of the AUPA did not include unborn children within its definition of "child." Accordingly, Z.W.E. could not be considered a presumed father under section 26-17-204(a)(5) and, thus, did not have the capacity to challenge Z.A.F.'s status as a presumed father of the child. View "Ex parte Z.W.E." on Justia Law
Moore v. Estate of Moore
Defendant Beulah Jean James Moore ("Beulah") appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of plaintiff Billy Edward Moore ("Billy"), individually and as executor of the estate of his brother and Beulah's husband, Jimmy Lee Moore ("Jimmy"), in an action filed by Billy seeking the enforcement of a prenuptial agreement. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was appropriate. Beulah argued that language in the prenup discussing "spousal consents or waivers" granted her the proceeds of Jimmy's 401(k) plan and the pension plan unless a spousal waiver was executed . However, the Court found agreement made clear that Jimmy and Beulah agreed that the separate property each brought into the marriage--including the 401(k) plan and the pension plan--would remain separate. Jimmy and Beulah further agreed that neither of them would "claim, demand, assert any right to, take or receive any part of the property of the other as described on Schedules 1 and 2," which included the 401(k) plan and the pension plan. The second clause of section 4.4 allowed the owner of "an IRA or other plan account" to "direct" the "distribution of benefits" to one through a "beneficiary designation." Under this clause, Jimmy was permitted to name Billy as the designated beneficiary of the 401(k) plan and the pension plan, which he had done before he married Beulah, who had, in turn, renounced her claim to the plans. "Nothing in section 4.4 suggests that the failure to execute a spousal consent or waiver changes the parties' clear intent throughout the entire prenuptial agreement to renounce claims to the other's property; instead, the purpose of the requirement is to ensure that the parties' desires to retain control over the distribution of their accounts through a beneficiary designation is accomplished." Under those circumstances, Beulah breached the prenuptial agreement by retaining the benefits from the 401(k) plan and the pension plan. Thus, the trial court properly entered a summary judgment in favor of Billy. View "Moore v. Estate of Moore" on Justia Law
Ex parte Marshall County Department of Human Resources.
In 2009, the Marshall County Department of Human Resources (DHR) removed J.J.V. from the custody of mother M.M.T. At that time, the child's father, J.V., was living in Florida, where mother and child resided until mother left father. Father came to Alabama to locate mother and child only to learn that DHR had removed the child from the mother's home. Without the aid of counsel, father attempted to work with DHR, briefly reuniting with mother. However, a DHR caseworker informed him that the child would not be returned to the parents if they resided together. Father left mother's residence, retained an attorney and secured supervised visitation with the child. In December 2010 and January 2011, father was granted unsupervised visitation with the child; he had a total of five unsupervised visits. After one such visit, the child's foster parents contacted a DHR caseworker, who was told the child had reported that father had "hurt her butt." At the caseworker's instruction, the foster parents took the child to the emergency room, which then referred the child for examination by a forensic nurse examiner. After the accusation, the father's visitation was changed to supervised visitation. In October 2011, father was charged with sexual abuse, arrested and placed in jail, where he remained for approximately 18 months. DHR filed a petition to terminate the father's parental rights; however, the juvenile court denied that petition. DHR appealed, and the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the juvenile court's judgment declining to terminate the father's parental rights and remanding the case for reconsideration of DHR's termination petition based on the evidence adduced at trial. On remand, the juvenile court entered another judgment declining to terminate the father's parental rights; there was no appeal. The sexual-abuse charge against father was dismissed in 2013. The father was then transferred to a detention facility in Louisiana on an immigration hold based on his status as an illegal immigrant. The father was released from the Louisiana facility in September 2014, after a 17–month detention. The father moved to Canton, Georgia, then sought custody of the child. The Supreme Court found after review of all the testimony in the lower court records, the parties were not yet ready for a change of legal and physical custody of the child and that such a change was actually not in the best interest of the child, and because there was no evidence indicating that those circumstances changed throughout all court proceedings. "Therefore, the juvenile court's October 19, 2017, order immediately removing the child from her foster parents and ultimately transferring legal and physical custody of the child to the father is not in the child's best interest and is, instead, plainly and palpably wrong." The Court reversed judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals and remanded this case for that court to order the juvenile court to vacate its judgment. View "Ex parte Marshall County Department of Human Resources." on Justia Law
Blalock v. Sutphin
Kimberly Blalock appealed a circuit court order holding Crimson Sutphin was the rightful beneficiary of a policy insuring the life of Loyd Sutphin, Jr. ("Loyd"), issued by New York Life Insurance Company. Loyd took out a $250,000 individual whole life-insurance policy, naming his daughter, Sutphin, as the sole beneficiary. In October 2012, Loyd married Blalock, and they lived together at his home in Henegar. Soon after, in December 2012, Loyd submitted a change-of-beneficiary-designation form to New York Life, designating Blalock and Sutphin each as a 50% beneficiary under the policy. A few years later, in February 2016, Loyd and Blalock divorced; however, the life-insurance policy was not addressed in the divorce judgment, and Loyd never changed the beneficiary designation following the divorce. Loyd died later that year on December 23, 2016. In April 2017, Sutphin filed a action seeking a judgment declaring that she was the rightful beneficiary of the entire proceeds of the New York Life policy because, she asserted, pursuant to section 30-4-17, Ala. Code 1975, Blalock's beneficiary designation had been revoked upon her divorce from Loyd. Blalock moved to dismiss the action, arguing that Tennessee, not Alabama, law should govern and, thus, that the DeKalb Circuit Court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case. The circuit court denied the motion to dismiss; Blalock filed a motion to reconsider the denial. At an evidentiary hearing on her motion to reconsider, Blalock again argued that the DeKalb Circuit Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction but also asserted that the application of 30-4-17 in this instance violated section 22 of the Alabama Constitution of 1901; the circuit court denied Blalock's motion to reconsider. The case proceeded to a bench trial, at which Blalock argued that she and Loyd had established a common-law marriage after their divorce and before his death, thereby reviving her beneficiary designation under the policy. The circuit court heard testimony from numerous witnesses on this issue, most of whom testified on Blalock's behalf. In 2018, the circuit court issued a final order in the case, holding that Sutphin was the rightful beneficiary under the policy because Blalock's beneficiary designation had been revoked by virtue of 30-4-17 and no common-law marriage existed to revive that designation before Loyd's death. Finding that Blalock's beneficiary designation was revoked under 30-4-17 by virtue of her divorce, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court. View "Blalock v. Sutphin" on Justia Law
Ex parte G.L.C.
Mother G.L.C. petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for certiorari review of a court of Civil Appeals judgment that denied her appeal as untimely. C.E.C. III ("the father") filed a petition with the Juvenile Court seeking to terminate Mother’s parental rights, alleging she had abandoned their son, A.B.C. ("the child"). The juvenile court appointed an attorney to represent the mother, and the juvenile court subsequently conducted a hearing on the father's petition. On August 16, 2017, the juvenile court entered a final judgment terminating the mother's parental rights to the child. The mother did not file a postjudgment motion challenging the juvenile court's judgment; therefore, pursuant to Rule 4(a)(1)(E), Ala. R. App. P., and Rule 28(C), Ala. R. Juv. P., the mother had 14 days, or until August 30, 2017, to file her notice of appeal. The notice of appeal and docketing statement that appear in the record were stamped filed on August 31, 2017, but that date had been changed by hand to August 30, 2017. The notice of appeal and the docketing statement were signed by the mother, not the court-appointed attorney who represented her during the termination-of-parental-rights proceeding. The date next to the mother's signature on the notice of appeal was August 31, 2017, but it had been changed to August 30, 2017; the date next to the mother's signature on the docketing statement was August 31, 2017. When considering the particular circumstances of this case, the Alabama Supreme Court determined the mother did everything she was supposed to do but was prevented from timely filing her notice of appeal based on erroneous information given to her by someone in the circuit clerk's office. Together with the fact that the mother was appealing the termination of her parental rights, the Court concluded equity required the Court deem the mother's notice of appeal timely filed. Accordingly, the dismissal was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Ex parte G.L.C." on Justia Law
Campbell v. J.R.C.
Patricia Campbell appeals from an order of the Mobile Circuit Court adjudicating J.R.C., J.L.C., R.L.C., and J.H.S., minor children, as the heirs of the estate of her son, Remano Campbell. Remano died intestate in October 2011, the victim of a homicide perpetrated by his wife, Eugenia Campbell. At the time of his death, Remano was the insured under a $200,000 life-insurance policy issued by United of Omaha Life Insurance Company ("Omaha"). Because Eugenia was not considered to be Remano's surviving spouse, the proceeds of the insurance policy would pass to Remano's issue; if there was no surviving issue, then to his parent or parents equally. Remano and Eugenia were legally married in June 2002. During their marriage, Remano and Eugenia had three children, J.R.C., J.L.C., and R.L.C. Eugenia also had another child, J.H.S., who was born approximately 18 months before her marriage to Remano and who lived with Remano and Eugenia throughout their marriage. In January 2017, the administrator ad litem of Remano's estate filed a complaint in the interpleader action, seeking a judgment declaring that the Campbell children and J.H.S. were Remano's heirs and thus were entitled to the life insurance proceeds. After a hearing, the circuit court entered an order adjudicating the Campbell children and J.H.S. to be Remano's heirs and further finding that Patricia lacked standing to challenge the paternity of the children. Accordingly, the circuit court ordered disbursement of the insurance proceeds in the interpleader action and directed that the estate administration be remanded to the probate court. Patricia filed a postjudgment motion, which was denied. This appeal followed. Finding no reversible error in the circuit court’s judgment, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed adjudication of the children as Remano’s heirs. View "Campbell v. J.R.C." on Justia Law
Harbin v. Estess
Charlotte Harbin appealed a circuit court judgment in favor of defendants-appellees Glenn Estess, Jr., as personal representative of the estate of Lecil V. Thomas; Richard Thomas; and Roger Thomas. Lecil and Tommie Thomas were married and had three children, one of whom predeceased them. They had two surviving sons, Richard and Roger. Lecil executed a will in 1995, and executed a codicil to that will in 2003. Tommie died in 2005. Lecil executed a second codicil to his will in 2008. According to Harbin, she and Lecil started dating after Tommie's death. She also asserted that they lived together off and on until September 2009, when, she says, they started living together as husband and wife. Lecil died in 2013. On May 30, 2013, Estess filed a petition for probate of Lecil's will, listing Harbin as Lecil's "putative common-law wife." The probate court admitted the will to probate and granted Estess letters testamentary. In 2014, Harbin filed a petition seeking an omitted spouse's share of Lecil's estate, asserting she was Lecil's common-law wife at the time of his death and that she had become Lecil's common-law wife after he had executed the will that had been admitted to probate. Estess filed an objection to Harbin's petition, and later, after the matter was removed to circuit court, Estess filed a renewed objection to Harbin's petition seeking a share as an omitted spouse. Richard and Roger Thomas intervened, seeking a judgment to declare Harbin was not Lecil's common-law wife at the time of his death, thus not making her an omitted spouse entitled to a share of Lecil's estate. The circuit found Harbin's claim time barred; she appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the circuit court erred in its interpretation of the statute controlling Harbin's omitted spouse's share of the estate, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Harbin v. Estess" on Justia Law