Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court
Howell v. Howell
A state court may not order a veteran to indemnify a divorced spouse for the loss in the spouse’s portion of the veteran’s retirement pay caused by the veteran’s waiver of retirement pay to receive service-related disability benefits. The Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act authorizes states to treat veterans’ “disposable retired pay” as community property divisible upon divorce, 10 U.S.C. 1408, excluding amounts deducted from that pay “as a result of a waiver . . . required by law in order to receive” disability benefits. In their divorce, Sandra was awarded 50% of John’s future Air Force retirement pay, which she began to receive when John retired. Years later, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that John was partially disabled due to an earlier service-related injury. To receive disability pay, John gave up an equivalent amount of retirement pay, 38 U.S.C. 5305. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed a family court order that Sandra receive her full 50% regardless of the waiver. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. John’s military pay was subject to a future contingency. State courts cannot “vest” that which they lack the authority to give. Family courts remain free to consider the contingency that some military retirement pay might be waived or consider reductions in value when calculating or recalculating the need for spousal support. View "Howell v. Howell" on Justia Law
V.L. v. E.L.
V. L. and E. L. were in a relationship from 1995-2011. Through assisted reproductive technology, E. L. gave birth to a child. in 2002 and to twins in 2004. The women raised the children as joint parents. V. L. rented a house and filed a petition to adopt the children in Georgia. E. L. gave express consent to the adoption, without relinquishing her own parental rights. A final decree recognized both V. L. and E. L. as the legal parents of the children. The women ended their relationship in 2011, while living in Alabama. V.L filed suit, alleging that E. L. had denied her access to the children and interfered with her ability to exercise her parental rights. She asked the Alabama court to register the Georgia adoption judgment and award her custody or visitation rights. The Family Court of Jefferson County awarded V. L. scheduled visitation. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Georgia court had no subject-matter jurisdiction under Georgia law to enter a judgment allowing V. L. to adopt the children while still recognizing E. L.’s parental rights and that Alabama courts were not required to accord full faith and credit to that judgment. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed on summary disposition, stating that the Georgia judgment appears on its face to have been issued by a court with jurisdiction; there is no established Georgia law to the contrary. View "V.L. v. E.L." on Justia Law
Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez
Alvarez and Lozano lived with their daughter in London until November 2008, when Alvarez and the child moved to a women’s shelter. In July 2009, they left the U.K., ultimately settling in New York. Lozano did not locate them until November 2010. He filed a Petition for Return of Child pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Under the Convention, if a parent files a petition within one year of the child’s removal, a court “shall order the return of the child forthwith.” When the petition is filed after that period, the court is to order return, “unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled in its new environment.” Because it was filed more than one year after removal, the district court denied the petition, finding that the child was now settled. The Second Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. There is no presumption that equitable tolling applies to treaties and the parties to the Convention did not intend that it apply to the one-year period. The International Child Abduction Remedies Act, 42 U. S. C. 11601–11610, enacted to implement the Convention, neither addresses equitable tolling nor purports to alter the Convention and, therefore, does not affect this conclusion. Even if the Convention were subject to a presumption that statutes of limitations may be tolled, the one-year period is not a statute of limitations. The remedy available to the left-behind parent continues to be available after one year; expiration of one year simply mandates consideration of a third party’s interests. The drafters did not choose to delay the period’s commencement until discovery of the child’s location. View "Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez" on Justia Law
Hollingsworth v. Perry
The California Supreme Court held that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the California Constitution; state voters then passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 8, amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples who wished to marry filed suit in federal court, challenging Proposition 8. State officials refused to defend the law, so the district court allowed the initiative’s official proponents to intervene, declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and enjoined its enforcement. State officials declined to appeal. The intervenors appealed. The Ninth Circuit certified a question, which the California Supreme Court answered: official proponents of a ballot initiative have authority to assert the state’s interest to defend the constitutionality of the initiative when public officials refuse to do so. The Ninth Circuit concluded that petitioners had standing and affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that the intervenors did not have standing to appeal. Article III of the Constitution confines the power of federal courts to deciding actual “Cases” or “Controversies.” A litigant must demonstrate a personal and tangible harm throughout all stages of litigation. The intervenors had standing to initiate this case against the California officials responsible for enforcing Proposition 8, but once the district court issued its order, they no longer had any injury to redress and state officials chose not to appeal. The intervenors had not been ordered to do or refrain from doing anything. Their “generalized grievance” is insufficient to confer standing. The fact that a state thinks a private party should have standing to seek relief for a generalized grievance cannot override settled law to the contrary. View "Hollingsworth v. Perry" on Justia Law
United States v. Windsor
Windsor and Spyer, two women, married in Canada in 2007. Their home state, New York, recognized the marriage. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Windsor, who sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Her claim was barred by section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 28 U.S.C. 1738C, which defined “marriage” and “spouse” to exclude same-sex partners for purposes of federal law. Windsor paid $363,053 in taxes and sought a refund, which the IRS denied. Windsor sued, challenging DOMA. The Department of Justice declined to defend section 3’s constitutionality. The district court ordered a refund, finding section 3 unconstitutional. The Second Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, 5-4, first holding that the government retained a stake, sufficient to support Article III jurisdiction, because the unpaid refund is “a real and immediate economic injury.” There was sufficient argument for section 3’s constitutionality to satisfy prudential concerns. DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons under the Fifth Amendment. Regulation of marriage has traditionally been within the authority of the states. DOMA, applicable to more than 1,000 federal statues and all federal regulations, was directed to a class of persons that the laws of New York and 11 other states have sought to protect. DOMA is inconsistent with the principle that marriage laws may vary from state to state, but are consistent within each state. A state’s decision to give a class of persons the right to marry confers a dignity and status of immense import. New York’s decision was a proper exercise of its sovereign authority. By seeking to injure the class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violated basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government. Constitutional guarantees of equality “must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot” justify disparate treatment of the group. DOMA’s history and text indicate a purpose and practical effect to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and a stigma upon those entering into same-sex marriages made lawful by the states. The law deprived some couples married under the laws of their states, but not others, of rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state; it diminished the stability and predictability of basic personal relations. View "United States v. Windsor" on Justia Law
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl
The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) establishes federal standards for state-court custody proceedings involving Indian children. It bars involuntary termination of parental rights absent a heightened showing that serious harm to the Indian child is likely to result from the parent’s “continued custody” of the child, 25 U.S.C. 1912(f); conditions involuntary termination of parental rights on showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the “breakup of the Indian family,” (1912(d)); and provides preferences for adoption of Indian children to extended family, members of the tribe, and other Indian families, (1915(a)). Before Baby Girl’s birth, Biological Father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, agreed to relinquish his parental rights. Birth Mother put Baby Girl up for adoption through a private agency and selected non-Indian adoptive parents. During the pregnancy and the first four months of Baby Girl’s life, Biological Father provided no financial assistance. Four months after the birth, Adoptive Couple served Biological Father with notice of the pending adoption. Biological Father sought custody and stated that he did not consent to the adoption. South Carolina Family Court denied the adoption petition and awarded Biological Father custody. At the age of 27 months, Baby Girl was given to Biological Father, whom she had never met. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, stating that, assuming that Biological Father is a “parent” under the ICWA, that law does not bar termination of his parental rights. “Continued custody” refers to custody that a parent already has or at least has had; section 1912(f) does not apply where the Indian parent never had custody. Section 1912(d) conditions involuntary termination of parental rights on a showing of efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family; the section applies only when the “breakup” would be precipitated by terminating parental rights. When an Indian parent abandons an Indian child before birth and that child has never been in that parent’s custody, the “breakup of the Indian family” has long since occurred, and section 1912(d) is inapplicable. Section 1915(a)’s placement preferences are inapplicable if no alternative party has formally sought to adopt the child. Biological Father did not seek to adopt, but only argued that his parental rights should not be terminated. View "Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl" on Justia Law
Hillman v. Maretta
The Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act (FEGLIA) permits an employee to name a beneficiary of life insurance proceeds, and specifies an “order of precedence” providing that an employee’s death benefits accrue first to that beneficiary ahead of other potential recipients, 5 U.S.C. 8705(a). A Virginia statute revokes a beneficiary designation in any contract that provides a death benefit to a former spouse where there has been a change in the decedent’s marital status, Va. Code 20–111.1(A). When the provision is preempted by federal law, Section D of that law provides a cause of action rendering the former spouse liable for the proceeds to the party who would have received them were Section A not preempted. Hillman named then-spouse, Maretta, as beneficiary of his FEGLI policy. After their divorce, he married Jacqueline but never changed his named FEGLI beneficiary. After Hillman’s death, Maretta, still the named beneficiary,collected the FEGLI proceeds. A Virginia Circuit Court found Maretta liable to Jacqueline under Section D for the FEGLI policy proceeds. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed, concluding that Section D is preempted by FEGLIA because it conflicts with the purposes and objectives of Congress. The Supreme Court affirmed. FEGLIA creates a scheme that gives highest priority to an insured’s designated beneficiary and underscores that the employee’s “right” of designation “cannot be waived or restricted.” Section D interferes with this scheme, because it directs that the proceeds actually belong to someone other than the named beneficiary by creating a cause of action for their recovery by a third party. FEGLIA establishes a clear and predictable procedure for an employee to indicate who the intended beneficiary shall be and evinces Congress’ decision to accord federal employees an unfettered freedom of choice in selecting a beneficiary and to ensure the proceeds actually belong to that beneficiary. View "Hillman v. Maretta" on Justia Law
Chafin v. Chafin
The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction requires contracting states to order a child returned to her country of habitual residence upon finding that the child has been wrongfully removed to or retained in the contracting state. The International Child Abduction Remedies Act, 42 U. S. C. 11601, implements the Convention. Chafin, a U.S. citizen, married a United Kingdom citizen (mother), in Germany, where they had a daughter, E. C. When Chafin was deployed with the military to Afghanistan, mother took E. C. to Scotland. When Chafin was transferred to Alabama, mother traveled there with E. C. Chafin filed for divorce and custody. Mother filed a petition under the Convention and ICARA. The district court concluded that E. C.’s country of habitual residence was Scotland. In Scotland, mother was granted interim custody and a preliminary injunction prohibiting Chafin from removing E. C. The Eleventh Circuit dismissed Chafin’s appeal as moot. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. Return of a child to a foreign country does not render appeal of a return order moot. The Chafins continue to contest where their daughter will be raised. Chafin’s claim for re-return cannot be dismissed as so implausible that it is insufficient to preserve jurisdiction; his prospects of success are not pertinent to mootness. Even if Scotland were to ignore a re-return order, U. S. courts would continue to have personal jurisdiction over mother and could command her to take action under threat of sanctions. Enforcement of the order may be uncertain, but that does not typically render cases moot. If cases were to become moot upon return of a child, courts would be more likely to routinely grant stays, to prevent loss of any right to appeal, conflicting with the Convention’s mandate of prompt return. View "Chafin v. Chafin" on Justia Law
Astrue v. Capato
Respondent gave birth to twins conceived through in vitro fertilization using her deceased husband's frozen sperm. Respondent applied for Social Security survivors benefits for the twins, relying on 42 U.S.C. 416(e) of the Social Security Act, which defined child to mean, inter alia, "the child or legally adopted child of an [insured] individual." The Social Security Administration (SSA), however, identified subsequent provisions of the Act, sections 416(h)(2) and (h)(3)(C), as critical, and read them to entitle biological children to benefits only if they qualified for inheritance from the decedent under state intestacy law, or satisfied one of the statutory alternatives to that requirement. The Court concluded that the SSA's reading was better attuned to the statute's text and its design to benefit primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner in his or her lifetime. And even if the SSA's longstanding interpretation was not the only reasonable one, it was at least a permissible construction that garnered the Court's respect under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. View "Astrue v. Capato" on Justia Law
Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Md.
Petitioner filed suit, alleging that his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, an instrumentality of the State, violated the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. 2612(a)(1). The provision at issue required employers, including state employers, to grant unpaid leave for self care for a serious medical condition, provided other statutory requisites were met, particularly requirements that the total amount of annual leave taken under all the FMLA's provisions did not exceed a stated maximum. The Court held that suits against States under the self-care provision, section 2612(a)(1), were barred by the States' immunity as sovereigns in the federal system. Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Fourth Circuit.