Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
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In 2018, a dependency petition was filed alleging that A.M.-S' father had physically abused the child. Although the father denied the allegations against him, he stipulated to a finding of dependency “given the nature of the allegations and the possibility of criminal charges.” The court ordered the father to engage in a “[p]sychological evaluation with a parenting component” and reserved ruling on other possible evaluations. The father asked the trial court to go beyond the RCW 26.44.053(2)'s requirements and prohibit not only the “use” of his statements during his court-ordered evaluation but also any “derivative use” of those statements in connection with a dependency hearing. The county prosecutor objected, and the trial court denied the father’s motion. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in a published opinion. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals: under these circumstances, the trial court was not required to grant derivative use immunity over the prosecutor’s objection. View "In re Dependency of A.M.-S." on Justia Law

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The "[Indian Child Welfare Act] ICWA and [Washington State Indian Child Welfare Act] WICWA were enacted to remedy the historical and persistent state-sponsored destruction of Native families and communities. . . . The acts provide specific protections for Native children in child welfare proceedings and are aimed at preserving the children’s relationships with their families, Native communities, and identities. The acts also require states to send notice to tribes so that tribes may exercise their independent rights and interests to protect their children and, in turn, the continuing existence of tribes as thriving communities for generations to come." At issue in this case was whether the trial court had “reason to know” that M.G and Z.G. were Indian children at a 72-hour shelter care hearing. The Washington Supreme Court held that a trial court had “reason to know” that a child was an Indian child when a participant in the proceeding indicates that the child has tribal heritage. "We respect that tribes determine membership exclusively, and state courts cannot establish who is or is not eligible for tribal membership on their own." The Court held that an indication of tribal heritage was sufficient to satisfy the “reason to know” standard. Here, participants in a shelter care hearing indicated that M.G. and Z.G. had tribal heritage. The trial court had “reason to know” that M.G. and Z.G. were Indian children, and it erred by failing to apply ICWA and WICWA standards to the proceeding. View "In re Dependency of Z.J.G." on Justia Law

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In 2018, the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families (Department) moved to terminate J.J.'s parental rights to her three children. After closing arguments, the trial court orally ruled that the Department had not met its burden to prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that the Department had offered all necessary services or that there was no reasonable likelihood of J.J. correcting her parental deficiencies in the near future. But instead of dismissing the termination petition, the trial court continued the trial without entering any findings of fact or conclusions of law. Two months later, the trial court heard more evidence and then terminated J.J.’s parental rights to all three of her children. J.J. appealed, arguing that the trial court violated her right to due process when it continued the trial after finding that the Department had not met its burden of proof. The Court of Appeals affirmed the termination. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and dismissed the termination petition, holding the trial court indeed violated J.J.’s right to due process when it continued the trial after finding the Department had not met its burden of proof. View "In re Welfare of D.E." on Justia Law

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The juvenile court terminated N.B.’s parental rights to his son, M.B., while N.B. was incarcerated. N.B. made clear that he strongly desired to participate in the termination trial by phone or in person. Despite this, most of the three-day trial occurred in his absence. N.B. was allowed to appear only by phone and for only a portion of the third day. Under the circumstances, the Washington Supreme Court concluded this was not fair and violated due process. The Court therefore reversed termination and remanded for a new trial. View "In re Welfare of M.B." on Justia Law

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The issue case raised centered whether the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (Department) fulfilled its statutory obligation under RCW 13.34.180(1)(d) to provide a mother necessary services before terminating her parental rights. B.B., the mother of D.H., S.T., L.L., and T.L., had her parental rights terminated after a nearly three-year long dependency. B.B. contended that the Department failed to provide her timely dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and neuropsychological services and that the parenting education services she received were not properly tailored to her mental health needs. A Court of Appeals commissioner affirmed the termination, finding that the Department provided and properly tailored all necessary services to B.B. After review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed, finding substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that all necessary and ordered services were offered or provided. View "In re Parental Rights to D.H." on Justia Law

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After six years of marriage, Michael Petelle filed a petition to dissolve his marriage to petitioner, Michelle Ersfeld-Petelle, having separated on January 27, 2017. The parties, both represented by counsel, executed a separation contract and CR 2A agreement on February 14, 2017. The contract divided assets and liabilities, contained an integration clause, and required all modifications to be in writing. In the contract, the parties agreed “to make a complete and final settlement of all their marital and property rights and obligations on the following terms and conditions.” The contract also provided that the “contract shall be final and binding upon the execution of both parties, whether or not a legal separation or decree of dissolution is obtained[,]” and, by its terms, the contract remained valid and enforceable against the estate of either party if either party died after the execution of the contract. Though the contract contained a “Full Satisfaction of All Claims” section, the right to intestate succession was not mentioned. Petitioner claimed that she and Michael were contemplating reconciliation, citing an e-mail Michael sent to his attorney requesting an extension to the “closing date” of the divorce. Before any reconciliation or dissolution occurred, Michael died intestate on May 1, 2017. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether Michelle, as surviving spouse, agreed in a separation contract to give up her right to intestate succession under RCW 11.04.015. Petitioner sought reversal of a published Court of Appeals opinion reversing the trial court’s denial of a motion to terminate her right to intestate succession in Michael's estate. After review, the Supreme Court concluded that under the terms of the contract, petitioner expressly waived her right to intestate succession. View "In re Estate of Petelle" on Justia Law

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Jessica Wrigley brought a negligent investigation claim against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) based on the placement of her son, A.A., with his biological father, Anthony Viles, during dependency hearings. Within three months of the placement, Viles killed A.A. The superior court dismissed Wrigley’s claim on summary judgment, finding the duty to investigate was never triggered. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding the “trigger” was Wrigley’s prediction that Viles would harm A.A. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding a report predicting future abuse absent evidence of current or past conduct of abuse or neglect did not invoke a duty to investigate under RCW 26.44.050. View "Wrigley v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Former foster children brought a case against the Department of Social and Health Service (DSHS) alleging negligence in failing to protect them from the tortious or criminal acts of their foster (and later, adoptive) parents. At the close of evidence, the trial court granted the Department's CR 50 motion and dismissed the children's claims of negligence concerning the preadoption-foster care period. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding DSHS owed them a common law duty to protect dependent foster children from foreseeable harm based on the special relationship between DSHS and such children. The Washington Supreme Court agreed with this reasoning, and remanded for trial on the children's preadoption claims. View "H.B.H. v. Washington" on Justia Law

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This matter involved two unrelated juveniles, E.H. and S.K.-P. in unrelated dependency proceedings. R.R., E.H.;s mother, and S.K.-P. both challenged the validity of RCW 13.34.100's discretionary standard for appointment of counsel for children in dependency proceedings, and sought instead a categorical right to counsel for all children in dependency proceedings. The Washington Supreme Court consolidate these cases to address that issue. The Supreme Court determined RCW 13.34.100(7)(a) was adequate under the Washington Constitution, and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a motion to appoint counsel. In light of GR 15, the Supreme Court held confidential juvenile court records remain sealed and confidential on appeal, and granted a joint motion to seal records in these matters. View "In re Dependency of E.H." on Justia Law

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Esmeralda Rodriguez petitioned for protection on behalf of her two-year-old son, arguing that Luis Zavala's repeated threats against her son constituted "domestic violence" under the plain language of RCW 26.50.010(3), and that she could petition for a protection order on her son's behalf based on her reasonable fear for him. Rodriguez feared Zavala would make good on his past threats and kill her, her daughters, their son, and then kill himself. Rodriguez petitioned ex parte for a domestic violence protection order for herself and her children, including L.Z. In her petition, Rodriguez described the assault that compelled her to seek the order, as well as Zavala's history of violence. The court issued a temporary order pending a full hearing. The temporary order restrained Zavala from contacting Rodriguez and all four children. The trial court issued a protective order for Rodriguez and her daughters, but excluded L.Z., explaining that the boy was not "present" during the assault or threatened at all. According to the trial judge, "[L.Z.] wasn't involved in any of this." Rodriguez appealed. Among other things, she argued that her son should have been included in the final protection order based on her fear that Zavala would hurt L.Z. The Washington Supreme Court agreed that Rodriguez could petition for protection of L.Z. under the plain language of RCW 26.50.010(3), and reversed the trial court's decision. View "Rodriguez v. Zavala" on Justia Law