Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Wisconsin Supreme Court
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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals reversing the order of the circuit court concluding that it had the authority to order Paul Schwab to comply with a marital settlement agreement entered into in 1992 on the grounds that Wis. Stat. 893.40 barred Kathy Siech's action, holding that the statute posed no bar to Kathy's action.In the settlement agreement, Paul promised to pay Kathy half of his pension "when and if" that benefit became available to him. Twenty-one years later, Paul received his pension, but he refused to pay Kathy her share. Kathy sought to judicially enforce their agreement by seeking a contempt order. In response, Paul asserted that Kathy's action was barred by section 893.40's twenty-year statute of repose. The circuit court concluded that it had the authority to order Paul to comply with the settlement agreement under Johnson v. Masters, 830 N.W.2d 647. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that section 893.40 did not bar Kathy's action because it was impossible for Kathy to enforce Paul's promise until after the statutory period of repose had run. View "Schwab v. Schwab" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals agreeing with the circuit court that the amended version of Wis. Stat. 48.415(2)(a)3 applied during Mother's termination of parental rights (TPR) proceedings, holding that there was no error.In 2018, the legislature amended of Wis. Stat. 48.415(2)(a)3, a portion of the continuing child in need of protection of services (CHIPS) ground for the involuntary termination of parental rights. The amendment occurred during the pendency of Mother's court proceedings involving her child, who was adjudged CHIPS in 2016. During the TPR proceedings, the parties disputed whether the 2016 version of the 2018 amended version the statute should apply to Mother's case. The circuit court ruled that the amended version applied and then allowed Mother to appeal the non-final order. The court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the "15 out of 22 months" timeframe, as codified in the amended version of the statute, began to run when Mother received written notice accompanying the initial 2016 CHIPS order; and (2) starting the "15 out of 22 months" timeframe in 2016 did not violate Mother's due process rights. View "Eau Claire County Department of Human Services v. S. E." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals reversing the circuit court's denial of Father's motion for reconsideration of the circuit court's ruling in favor of Mother in a custody dispute, holding that the "extreme" facts of this case rebutted the presumption of judicial impartiality and established a due process violation.The circuit court judge accepted Mother's Facebook "friend request" after a contested hearing but before rendering a decision. During the twenty-five days between the judge's acceptance of Mother's friend request and his issuance of a written decision entirely in her favor, Mother engaged with and reacted to at least twenty of the judge's Facebook posts. Mother further "shared" and "liked" several third-party posts related to an issue that was contested at the hearing. After discovering the Facebook friendship and communications, which the judge never disclosed, Father moved the circuit court for reconsideration, requesting judicial disqualification and a new hearing. The judge denied the motion. The court of appeals reversed and remanded the case with directions that the court proceed before a different circuit court judge. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the circumstances and facts of this case rose to the level of a serious risk of actual bias, which rebutted the presumption of the judge's impartiality. View "Miller v. Carroll" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals applying a constructive trust to proceeds Lynnea Landsee-Pulkkila collected from a life insurance policy maintained by her late husband, James Pulkkila, holding that the court of appeals erred in imposing a constructive trust absent findings of fact that would support such an imposition.In 2009, James and Joan Pulkkila divorced. In their marital settlement agreement (MSA) that was incorporated into the judgment of divorce James and Joan were required to maintain life insurance with their children as beneficiaries. In 2013, James and Lynnea were married. The following year, James submitted a beneficiary name change asking that Lynnea be made the sole beneficiary of the life insurance policy. After Lynnea was paid the proceeds of the policy, Joan asserted that James breached the MSA agreement and that a constructive trust should be placed on the proceeds. The circuit court denied Joan's motion for a constructive trust. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that equity required the imposition of a constructive trust. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the court of appeals erroneously exercised its discretion because it determined that a constructive trust was appropriate in the absence of an evidentiary hearing and resulting relevant factual findings. View "Pulkkila v. Pulkkila" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court vacated the order of the circuit court granting a petition for grandparent visitation over the objection of two fit parents, holding that the Grandparent Visitation Statute, Wis. Stat. 767.43(3), as applied to the circuit court order, is unconstitutional because Grandmother did not overcome the presumption in favor of the Parents' visitation decision with clear and convincing evidence that their decision was not in the child's best interest.Despite finding that Parents were good and fit parents, the circuit court granted Grandmother's petition for visitation. The Supreme Court vacated the order, holding (1) The Grandparent Visitation Statute must withstand strict scrutiny; (2) the statute is facially constitutional and is narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest; but (3) the statute is unconstitutional as applied, and the visitation order in this case violated the constitutional rights of Parents. View "Michels v. Lyons" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals affirming the termination of Father’s parental rights and remanded this case to the circuit court to conduct a new trial, holding that denying a defendant an opportunity to present his case-in-chief is a structural error, one that is so intrinsically harmful as to require automatic reversal.After the State petitioned the circuit court to terminate Father’s parental rights, the case went to trial. Immediately after the State rested and before giving Father an opportunity to present his case the circuit court decided that Father was an unfit parent. On appeal, the State admitted error but argued that the circuit court’s decision was subject to a harmless-error review. The court of appeals agreed with the State and concluded that the circuit court’s error was harmless. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the circuit court erred when it decided Father was an unfit parent before he had an opportunity to present his case; and (2) the error was structural, and the case must be remanded for a new trial. View "State v. C.L.K." on Justia Law

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St. Croix County petitioned to terminated Mother’s parental rights to her Son, alleging that Son was a child in continuing need of protection or services (CHIPS) and that Mother failed to assume parental responsibility. The circuit court terminated Mother’s parental rights to Son. Citing Waukesha County v. Steven H., the court of appeals reversed, ruling that because the last order Mother received did not contain written notice warning her about termination, the County failed to establish the notice element required under Wis. Stat. 48.415(2)(a)(1). The Supreme Court reversed after clarifying Steven H., holding that the notice Mother received satisfied the statutory notice requirement in a termination of parental rights action based on continuing CHIPS, and the evidence was sufficient to support the remaining elements of continuing CHIPS set forth in Wis. Stat. 48.415(2). View "St. Croix County Dep’t of Health & Human Servs. v. Michael D." on Justia Law

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After Mother and Father divorced, Grandmother filed a motion seeking to visit her four grandchildren. The circuit court ultimately denied the motion, concluding that Grandmother failed to prove that she maintained “a parent-like relationship” with the children pursuant to Wis. Stat. 767.43(1). The children appealed, and the the court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) section 767.43(1) does not require a grandparent, great-grandparent, or stepparent who files a motion for visitation rights to prove that he or she has maintained a parent-like relationship with the child, as the parent-child relationship element applies only to a person seeking visitation rights who is not a grandparent, great-grandparent, or stepparent; and (2) the legislature’s decision to allow courts to grant visitation rights to grandparents, great-grandparents, and stepparents when visitation is in the best interest of the child does not infringe on parents’ constitutional rights. View "S. A. M. v. Meister" on Justia Law

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Joseph McLeod, Decedent's husband, filed a petition for formal administration of Decedent's estate and his appointment as personal representative. McLeod also asserted his right to a share of Decedent's estate. Patricia Mudlaff, Decedent's stepdaughter, also filed a petition for formal administrative and appointment as personal representative, contending that Decedent's marriage to McLeod was invalid because Decedent lacked the mental capacity to consent to the marriage and requesting that the circuit court declare Decedent's marriage void. The circuit court rejected Mudlaff's argument, concluding that annulment was the only method to void a marriage and that Wisconsin law prohibits annulment after the death of one of the parties to the marriage. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) annulment is not the exclusive remedy to challenge the validity of a marriage; and (2) in an estate action challenging a marriage, a court may use its declaratory judgment powers to declare that a marriage prohibited by law was void and incapable of validation by the parties to the marriage. Remanded. View "Mudlaff v. McLeod" on Justia Law

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David and Marcia Rosecky entered into a parentage agreement (agreement) with Monica and Cory Schissel under which the parties agreed that Monica would become pregnant and carry a child for the Roseckys. Through artificial insemination using Monica's egg and David's sperm, Monica became pregnant and later gave birth to a child. Shortly before the child's birth, Monica decided she did not want to give up her parental rights and sought custody and placement of the child. David, in response, sought enforcement of the agreement. The circuit court concluded that the agreement was not enforceable and awarded sole custody of the child to David, primary placement to David, and secondary placement to Monica. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) a parentage agreement is a valid, enforceable contract unless its enforcement is contrary to the best interests of the child; (2) none of the traditional defenses to the enforcement of a contact applied in this case to render the agreement unenforceable; and (3) the circuit court erred in rendering its custody and placement decision without consideration of the agreement. Remanded for a hearing on custody and placement. View "Rosecky v. Schissel" on Justia Law