Justia Family Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court
Golden v. Worthington
Father, Joe Golden, challenged a family division magistrate’s order requiring him to continue paying child support past his son S.W.’s eighteenth birthday while S.W. was enrolled in a home-study program. Father argued that the magistrate erred in finding that S.W.’s home-study program qualified as high school under the 2002 child-support order and in ordering him to continue paying child support on that basis. Resolving this dispute required review of the evidentiary record, as well as a review of the magistrate’s findings, analysis, and conclusions. The Vermont Supreme Court found father, appearing pro se, did not provide any record of the trial court's proceedings. "Because we lack a sufficient record to review the magistrate’s order, we have no basis on which to disturb it." View "Golden v. Worthington" on Justia Law
In re A.W. & A.W.
Daughter A.W. was born in October 2013 and son A.W. was born in June 2017. In February 2019, father was charged with domestic assault for attempting to strangle daughter, who was five years old at the time. As a result, the Department for Children and Families (DCF) filed petitions alleging that daughter and son were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). DCF had accepted five previous reports asserting both physical abuse of daughter and mother by father and concerns that son was not gaining weight or receiving medical care. The court granted emergency- and temporary-care orders transferring custody to DCF. Children were placed with their paternal grandparents. In March 2019, both parents stipulated that daughter and son were CHINS due to father’s physical abuse of daughter and statements indicating a risk of harm to son. In May 2019, the court entered a disposition order and adopted a case plan calling for reunification with one or both parents by November 2019. The Children appealed the ultimate decision to terminate their parents rights to them following voluntary relinquishments. The Children argued the family division court lacked the power to modify the disposition order terminating the parental rights because they did not consent to the termination, and the court did not hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether termination was in their best interests. To this, the Vermont Supreme Court concurred, reversed, and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re A.W. & A.W." on Justia Law
Randall v. Hooper
MiHae (Hooper) Randall (mother) filed a motion with the family division requesting Timothy Randall (father) pay a portion of her attorney’s fees relating to proceedings modifying the parties' parental rights and responsibilities. The court denied mother’s motion. Mother filed a motion to amend or alter the judgment, which the court also denied. Mother appealed. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying mother’s request for attorney’s fees and therefore affirmed. View "Randall v. Hooper" on Justia Law
Theberge v. Theberge
This appeal arose from the denial of defendant Mary Ann Theberge’s post-judgment motion to enforce the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to a spousal-maintenance award made in her favor in the parties’ divorce action. The trial court found that the parties agreed to a modification of the maintenance award eliminating the yearly COLA and that, consequently, plaintiff Gerald Theberge’s maintenance payments - which continued after the alleged agreement, absent the COLA - were not in arrears. Accordingly, the court denied the enforcement motion. The Vermont Supreme Court held that a tuition agreement between the parties was a valid contract such that, if plaintiff agreed to waive defendant’s obligation thereunder in connection with a second agreement, he would have given up a legal right he was otherwise free to exercise. As a result, remand was necessary for the trial court to determine whether the parties entered an agreement with corrected factual findings. In connection with this remand, the Court noted that the trial court considered defendant’s receipt of ten years of maintenance payments without COLA to constitute “waiver by performance.” However, it was unclear whether the trial court was referring to waiver in the context of evidence that defendant made an oral agreement to waive the COLA, or whether it was referring to waiver as the relinquishment of a known right through defendant’s failure to seek enforcement of the COLA sooner than she did. Upon remand, the trial court was asked to clarify its conclusion regarding defendant’s “waiver by performance.” View "Theberge v. Theberge" on Justia Law
In re H.T. & M.L.
Parents appealed the termination of their rights in M.L., born in 2014, and H.T., born in 2015, following a long-delayed initial disposition hearing. They argued the trial court: (1) committed plain error in accepting their stipulation that the children were in need of care or supervision (CHINS); (2) violated their due process rights by delays in the proceedings; and (3) erred in concluding that they would not be able to parent the children within a reasonable time. While the delay in the initial disposition hearing meant the court did not have to find stagnation in order to terminate the parents’ residual parental rights, the court made findings that supported termination. Contrary to parents’ assertion, the Vermont Supreme Court found the trial court did not “ignore the injustices that were apparent to service providers, expert witnesses and the GALs.” Instead, the Supreme Court determined the trial court applied the law and evaluated, based on the evidence, whether terminating parents’ rights would be in the children’s best interests. “While parents disagree with the court’s conclusion, they fail to show error.” View "In re H.T. & M.L." on Justia Law
In re C.L.S.
Parents appeal the termination of their parental rights to son C.L.S. C.L.S. was born in February 2018. During mother’s last trimester of pregnancy, hospital staff reported to the Department for Children and Families (DCF) that mother had repeatedly tested positive for illicit unprescribed substances. She missed numerous prenatal and medication-assisted-treatment appointments during her pregnancy. She declined inpatient treatment or a referral to a substance-abuse clinic. Parents were unmarried but lived together prior to C.L.S.’s birth. At birth, C.L.S. weighed less than five pounds, had an underdeveloped esophagus, and was in withdrawal from having illegal drugs in his system. He initially required a feeding tube. Mother tested positive for numerous unprescribed illegal drugs. DCF took C.L.S into custody on an emergency basis on the day he was born and filed a petition alleging that C.L.S. was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). A temporary care hearing began the following day. The parents denied that C.L.S. was CHINS, sought a conditional order giving custody to father, and requested a contested temporary care hearing. The court continued custody with DCF but permitted parents to have unsupervised contact with C.L.S. while he remained in the hospital. C.L.S. was subsequently discharged to a foster home and father filed a motion requesting parent-child contact and unsupervised visitation. In September 2018, after a contested hearing, the court issued a disposition order continuing DCF custody and adopted a case plan calling for concurrent goals of reunification with either parent or adoption. Neither party appealed the disposition order. In January 2019, the State filed petitions to terminate mother’s and father’s parental rights. On appeal, neither parent challenged the court’s findings or conclusions in the termination order. Rather, they asserted the court committed various errors at the temporary care hearings that required reversal of the merits determination and subsequent disposition orders. Finding no abuse of discretion, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed termination. View "In re C.L.S." on Justia Law
In re M.E.
Juvenile M.E. appealed the family division’s dismissal of the State’s petition to declare her a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS). In May 2019, the Department for Children and Families (DCF) filed a petition alleging that M.E. was without proper parental care. The CHINS petition was based on mother’s admitted use of heroin on one occasion and allegations that M.E. had been exposed to drug use and paraphernalia while in the care of her parents. The court issued an emergency care order transferring custody to DCF. After a temporary care hearing, custody was continued with DCF. A merits hearing was held; subsequently the court concluded the State failed to establish the merits and dismissed the petition. “[A]ny time the State seeks to interfere with the rights of parents on the generalized assumption that the children are in need of care and supervision, it must first produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the statutory directives allowing such intervention are fully satisfied.” The fact that there was evidence in the record to contradict the court’s findings was insufficient for the Vermont Supreme Court to reverse the trial court’s conclusion. Accordingly, the Court affirmed dismissal of the CHINS petition. View "In re M.E." on Justia Law
McCool v. Macura
Defendant appealed a final relief-from-abuse (RFA) order issued by the superior court family division. The parties had an intimate relationship and began living together in 2011 in a house originally owned by plaintiff’s family but later purchased by the parties. The relationship ended in December 2017. In June 2018, plaintiff filed a motion for relief from abuse, asking the Orange County family division to order defendant to stay away from her and the parties’ home. The Orange County family division concluded defendant had engaged in abuse by stalking, and that there was danger of further abuse. A temporary order was extended for six months; at the end, the RFA was not extended. The court determined at that point, the parties were engaged primarily in a property dispute. On December 19, 2018, the day after the Orange County family division denied plaintiff’s motion to extend the previous RFA order, plaintiff filed a new request for an RFA order in the Washington County family division. In her affidavit, she alleged that a few hours after the previous day’s hearing, defendant entered her residence without her consent to retrieve his belongings. Plaintiff further alleged that defendant got inside the house through forced entry and disabled the outside security cameras. She stated that defendant had a history of restraining her and that the previous RFA order had expired only hours before he entered her residence. The Washington County family division granted a temporary RFA order and scheduled a hearing. Following the hearing, the court issued a final RFA order based on the court’s determination that defendant had abused plaintiff by placing her in fear of imminent serious physical harm. Defendant appealed that order, arguing that: (1) the record did not support the court’s determination that plaintiff was placed in reasonable fear of imminent serious harm; (2) the court failed to make findings concerning any danger of future abuse; and (3) the court abused its discretion by not allowing him to cross-examine plaintiff, unfairly limiting defendant’s direct testimony, and not admitting relevant video evidence of defendant entering plaintiff’s residence. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the record did not support the court’s determination that defendant abused plaintiff by placing her in fear of imminent serious physical harm, and vacated the RFA order. View "McCool v. Macura" on Justia Law
In re A.M.
Mother appealed a family division disposition order transferring custody of her six-year-old daughter A.M. to father, who lived in Colorado. Specifically, mother argued the court erred in directing mother to pay for 75% of the costs of transporting the child back and forth to Vermont for contact with mother. Specifically, she argued the court lacked authority in this CHINS proceeding to make an order allocating travel costs, particularly since neither party requested such an order, there was no warning to the parties, and no evidence was taken regarding their relative financial conditions. The State did not disagree and joined in mother’s arguments on this issue. Because the Vermont Supreme Court found no statutory authority for the court to make a financial award of this type in a CHINS proceeding, it reversed the family court’s final disposition order insofar as it purported to allocate 75% of the costs of transporting A.M. for visits to mother. The matter was remanded for that court to issue new disposition and parental rights and responsibilities orders without that provision. View "In re A.M." on Justia Law
In re M.P.
When M.P. was born, mother was married to husband. At the time of M.P.’s birth, the family lived in Alabama. In the spring of 2016, the family moved to Vermont. Mother was subsequently arrested on an Alabama warrant and extradited to Alabama. M.P. and her brothers remained in Vermont in husband’s care. In August 2016, husband requested assistance in caring for the children, and M.P. and her brothers were placed in DCF custody. The State filed a petition alleging M.P. and her brothers were CHINS. Mother and father appealed the eventual termination of their parental rights to M.P. On appeal, father argued: (1) Vermont lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate M.P. as a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) and to terminate his parental rights under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA); (2) the family court erred in finding that his progress had stagnated and that termination was in M.P.’s best interests; and (3) the evidence did not support the court’s finding that the Department for Children and Families (DCF) made reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency plan. Mother joins father’s arguments and argues that the CHINS order is invalid because mother did not join the stipulation on which the order was based. The Vermont Supreme Court rejected the parents’ jurisdictional challenges to the CHINS merits order and reversed termination of father’s parental rights. The Court concluded husband had authority as the children’s custodian and presumed legal parent to enter the stipulation upon which the CHINS decision was based. Further, the family court had temporary emergency jurisdiction over the CHINS petition under the UCCJEA and that jurisdiction became permanent when no case concerning M.P. was filed or commenced in another state. The Court affirmed termination of mother’s parental rights, but that the family court erred in finding that father’s progress had stagnated. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court held there was a change of circumstances warranting modification of the case plan in this case given the identification of father, who had previously been involved as M.P.’s caretaker, as M.P.’s legal parent. View "In re M.P." on Justia Law