Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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The trial court in this case denied a county agency’s petitions to terminate involuntarily the parental rights of a mother. The agency appealed to the Superior Court, which reversed the trial court’s order and effectively terminated the mother’s parental rights to two of her children. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the mother’s petitions for allowance of appeal to consider two issues: (1) whether the Superior Court’s decision conflicted with the Supreme Court's decision in In re R.J.T., 9 A.3d 1179 (Pa. 2010); and (2) whether the Superior Court erred by substituting its judgment for that of the trial court. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the Superior Court exceeded its standard of review. "Rather than examining the record to determine whether it supports the trial court’s conclusion that the various conditions that led to the Children’s removal from Mother’s custody no longer continue to exist, the intermediate court focused exclusively on one condition that led to the Children’s removal, i.e., Mother’s mental health issues, and searched the record to support its view that Mother has failed to address this condition adequately. Because the Superior Court erred by substituting its judgment for that of the trial court, we vacate the Superior Court’s judgment and reinstate the trial court’s order." View "In the Interest of: S.K.L.R." on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review of a Superior Court’s decision to invalidate the involuntary termination of a father’s parental rights. The child’s mother voluntarily relinquished her own rights, but continued to reside with the pre-adoptive maternal grandparents and maintain her parental role. The panel viewed the matter to involve unlawful custody gamesmanship in conflict with the Supreme Court's decision in In re Adoption of M.R.D., 145 A.3d 1117 (Pa. 2016). Although the Supreme Court found no direct conflict between the proposed adoption and M.R.D., and disapproved of the Superior Court’s holding to the contrary, the Supreme Court affirmed the panel’s disposition on the alternative grounds. View "Adoption of C.M." on Justia Law

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In the pendency of divorce proceedings, Appellee and her husband entered into agreement governing the shared custody of their five-year-old child. Appellee repeatedly and intentionally violated this custody agreement, eventually absconding with the child ultimately to Florida, where the child remained for forty-seven days separated from her father. Appellee claimed the father was abusive, her attempts to secure assistance from the local children and youth agency had been rebuffed, and she had no option but to remove the child from the father’s care. Appellee was apprehended and charged with interference with custody of children. At trial, the Commonwealth presented testimony from the father, a clinical psychologist, a social worker, and a detective to the effect that Appellee’s allegations were false and/or unfounded. Appellee said she had been advised by a nanny the child had disclosed an incident of offensive touching by the father, and that subsequently the child repeatedly made statements to Appellee personally which were indicative of abuse. Appellee also presented the nanny’s corroborative testimony, and her cousin attested the child had apprised her of inappropriate touching too. The Pennsylvania Legislature prescribed that a defendant was innocent of the crime of “interference with custody of children” when he or she believed that intrusive actions were necessary to spare the subject child from danger. Appellee was convicted as charged and sentenced; in post-conviction proceedings, the Superior Court reversed sentence and ordered a new trial. The Commonwealth contended that the belief element of the offense should have been construed to encompass only beliefs that were held reasonably. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found Commonwealth’s arguments "are too tenuous to be credited." The Superior Court judgment was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. H.D." on Justia Law

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In this appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether, under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, an attorney could act as both guardian ad litem and legal counsel for a minor child, in the context of a petition for termination of parental rights, where counsel did not expressly inquire into the child’s preferred outcome of the termination proceedings. In these unique circumstances, the Court found the attorney was able to fulfill her professional duties and act in both roles. Thus, the Court affirmed the Superior Court order, which affirmed the termination of parental rights in this case. View "In Re: P.G.F." on Justia Law

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Upon completion of an investigation of a report of child abuse, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) or its designated county children and youth agency (county agency) categorizes the investigated report as “indicated,” “founded,” or “unfounded.” When a report of child abuse was substantiated as either indicated or founded, or amended from indicated or founded, the named perpetrator is provided with notice of the status, including the effect of a substantiated report upon future employment opportunities involving children, and the individual’s name was added to the statewide child abuse database where it could remain indefinitely. On July 6, 2017, the county agency filed two identical indicated reports (CPS reports) identifying J.F. as a perpetrator of abuse of her fifteen-month-old twin children. While her administrative appeal of the CPS reports was pending, J.F. entered into an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) for both criminal counts of endangering the welfare of children. As a result of J.F.’s entry into ARD, the county agency changed the status of the CPS reports from “indicated” to “founded,” then filed a motion to dismiss J.F.’s administrative appeal, attaching the criminal court docket, and averring the factual circumstances of the ARD were the same as the CPS reports which authorized the county agency to change the reports’ status to founded. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether J.F., seeking to challenge the founded report, was entitled an administrative hearing. The Court held that in the absence of another appropriate forum to challenge DHS’s adjudication of child abuse in a recorded evidentiary hearing, a named perpetrator in a report designated as “founded” based upon the perpetrator’s voluntary entry into an accelerated rehabilitative disposition was entitled to an administrative hearing. View "J.F. v. Department of Human Services" on Justia Law

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In this discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine the burden of proof for a settlor of an irrevocable trust in order to void the trust on grounds of fraudulent inducement in the creation of the trust. The corpus of the Trust at issue here consisted of numerous assets totaling approximately $13 million, including two real estate property companies called Japen Holdings, LLC, and Japen Properties, LLP (collectively “Japen”). Although acquired during the marriage, Japen was owned 100% by Husband. Unbeknownst to Wife, among Japen’s assets were two residential properties in Florida. When presented with the Trust inventory of assets, Wife did not question its contents, which included Japen, but not a listing of its specific holdings, e.g., the Florida Properties. Approximately four months after the creation of the Trust, Wife discovered that Husband had been having an affair and that his paramour was living in one of the Florida Properties. Wife promptly filed for divorce. A month after that, she filed an emergency petition for special relief to prevent dissipation of the marital assets, including assets in the Trust. Wife argued that Husband’s motive in creating the Trust was to gain control over the marital assets and avoid equitable distribution. A family court judge accepted Wife’s argument by freezing certain accounts included in the Trust and directing Husband to collect rent from his paramour. The Supreme Court held that a settlor averring fraud in the inducement of an irrevocable trust had to prove by clear and convincing evidence the elements of common-law fraud. In doing so, the Court rejected the analysis set forth in In re Estate of Glover, 669 A.2d 1011 (Pa. Super. 1996), because it represented an inaccurate statement of the elements required to establish fraud in the inducement. The Court affirmed the Superior Court’s ruling that the complaining settlor did not prove fraud in the inducement. View "In Re: Passarelli Family Trust" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered issues relating to appellate review of a trial court’s appointment of legal counsel under Section 2313(a) of the Adoption Act relating to whether, and how, an appellate court should review, sua sponte, appointed counsel’s representation of children’s legal interests in a termination of parental rights proceeding. Specifically, the Supreme Court addressed, inter alia, whether reviewing courts must determine sua sponte whether a conflict existed in an attorney’s representation of a child’s best interests and legal interests, and whether counsel’s advocacy for the child’s legal interests included placing the child’s preferred outcome on the record. Appellant T.L.G. (“Mother”) was the mother of four children: A.M.G., S.A.G., K.M.G., and J.C.C (collectively “the Children”). Children and Youth Services ("CYS") filed dependency petitions for all four children, citing the parents' inability to provide proper care, especially in regard to their medical care and school attendance. A termination of parental rights was held in 2018; the children had been placed with their paternal aunt and uncle who were willing to adopt them. Mother appealed termination of her parental rights, arguing the trial court erred in concluding CYS proved the grounds for termination. In addition, she raised her 2313(a) argument. The Supreme Court held that while an appellate court should verify the orphans' court appointed counsel to represent the child's legal interests, it could not assess, sua sponte, the performance of that representation. The Court affirmed the termination of parental rights in this case. View "Adoption of A.M.G., S.A.G., K.M.G. & J.C.C" on Justia Law

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In a matter of first impression, a Pennsylvania superior court held that anti-alienation provisions governing municipal pensions found in various statutes protected assets from attachment and other legal process (including a contract claim) only while those assets remained in the possession of the pension fund administrator. Specifically, the court determined that a spouse’s promise to waive her right to her husband’s pension benefits, including agreeing to transfer such benefits after receiving them from the administrator, was legally enforceable. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that because the superior court’s interpretation was consistent with the plain language of the statutes, the context in which the provisions appear, and Pennsylvania precedent interpreting similar statutory language, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the superior court. View "Estate of M&J Benyo v. Breidenbach" on Justia Law

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In a discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether the superior court erred in its application of Pennsylvania law to find that L.B., a Colorado resident, was foreclosed from challenging the validity of his consent to permit the adoption of his minor children under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, but not the requirements of the corresponding Colorado statute. After review, the Court concluded the superior court did not err, and affirmed the termination of L.B.'s parental rights to his children. View "In Re: J.W.B. & R.D.B." on Justia Law

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D.R. (Father) and J.R. (Mother) (collectively, Parents) resided in Greene County, Pennsylvania with their five children, ranging in age from six to sixteen years old. Father was an attorney who, as part of his private practice, represented parents under investigation by Greene County Children and Youth Services (CYS). On October 29, 2018, Greene County CYS received a report that on October 12, 2018, Father was observed to be impaired or under the influence while in the presence of one of his children. Because Father was a practicing attorney in Greene County, and to avoid a conflict of interest, the matter was referred to Fayette County CYS (the Agency). The Agency received three reports regarding Father, one of which was an allegation of abuse towards Mother (criminal charges were dropped because she refused to testify). The Agency thereafter moved to compel Parents' cooperation with a General Protective Services Assessment. Following a hearing, orders directing Parents to permit the Agency into their home to assess the living conditions of the children, and directing Parents to cooperate with the Agency were issued. The court also ordered Father to submit observed urine samples for purposes of drug and alcohol assessments. The orders further noted that Parents’ failure to comply would subject them to sanctions. Parents appealed, and a superior court reversed, finding no link between the alleged abuse and conditions in the home. Further, though there were reports of Father's intoxication, there was no specificity as to the type of impairment or whether such impairment caused the children to be abused or neglected. The Agency argued on appeal that the Superior Court erred in holding that it was without authorization to require urine samples as part of its duty to investigate reports of suspected child abuse. Finding no reversible error in the superior court judgment, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Interest of: D.R." on Justia Law