Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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Adam and Kyoko Perry married in November 2005 and had two minor children. For the latter part of their marriage, Kyoko handled the couple’s finances. Kyoko continued her education while married, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and incurring approximately $84,000 in debt. AKyoko testified that she obtained a master’s degree so she could defer her loan payments while Adam was temporarily unemployed. She stated that she feared they could not afford the loan payments while Adam was out of work. Adam decided to leave his job and was temporarily unemployed for a period of 34 days in early 2015, around the same time that Kyoko’s student loan payments began. Adam filed for divorce in March 2017. Kyoko objected when the divorce decree classified a portion of her student loan debt as non-marital. She also argued the court improperly calculated the parties’ income for child support purposes. Because the superior court applied the wrong legal standards to determine whether the student loan debt was marital and to calculate the parties’ incomes for child support purposes, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated the superior court’s final property distribution and child support orders and remanded for the court to conduct the proper legal analysis. View "Perry v. Perry" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Mother, Anette H., appealed the termination of her parental rights to her son, who was found to be a child in need of aid based on a hair follicle test positive for controlled substances. She argued that without proof that her drug use caused the child’s exposure, there was no causal link between her conduct and any circumstances that may have endangered the child. She also argued the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) did not make reasonable efforts to reunify the family because it failed to adequately accommodate her mental health issues. Because the record supported the superior court’s finding that the child was in need of aid, and because OCS’s efforts were reasonable under the circumstances, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed termination of the mother’s parental rights. View "Annette H. v. Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children's Services" on Justia Law

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In a divorce case, the superior court divided the marital estate equally. The estate included the marital home and an adjoining lot, which the spouses agreed should be sold. The husband remained in the home after the wife moved out, and he paid the mortgage until the properties sold nearly two years after the divorce was final. Once the properties sold, the parties requested a hearing on the allocation of the sale proceeds. The husband argued that he should be reimbursed for his post-divorce mortgage payments. The wife countered that the husband’s use of the home as his residence offset any claim he otherwise had to reimbursement. The superior court denied reimbursement to the husband, and the husband appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the findings in the court’s order allocating the sale proceeds were insufficient, so it remanded the case for additional findings. View "Hall v. Hall" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A father appealed a superior court’s denial of his motion to modify child support, arguing his house arrest while awaiting trial on federal charges should have been considered involuntary unemployment for purposes of calculating child support. He also argued remand is necessary for an evidentiary hearing and for the superior court to enter findings of fact and conclusions of law. Because the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the father made a prima facie showing of a substantial change in circumstances that would entitle him to an evidentiary hearing, the case was remanded to the superior court to conduct an evidentiary hearing. View "Schwier v. Schwier" on Justia Law

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A Juneau couple with three children separated, and the mother filed for divorce. Wishing to relocate with the children to Oregon for work, she requested primary physical custody. The superior court concluded that it was in the children’s best interests to relocate with the mother. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s custody decision was supported by the record and followed the appropriate legal framework, so it affirmed. View "Brett M. v. Amber M." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A divorced mother had sole legal and physical custody of her two daughters. Their father sought a protective order against the mother and a modification of custody after she repeatedly hit the older daughter with a belt. The superior court found that the mother’s actions did not trigger the presumption against custody under AS 25.24.150(g). It ordered that she retain legal and physical custody, subject only to a limited protective order, and that the father have restricted visitation. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded it was an abuse of discretion for the superior court to exclude the testimony of a psychologist who diagnosed the child with PTSD. The Court thus vacated the custody decision and remanded for a new analysis of the children’s best interests in light of the psychologist’s testimony. View "John E. and Sally E., a Minor v. Andrea E." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A husband was granted a 20-day domestic violence protective order against his wife. During a brief extension of the 20-day order, the wife sent the husband a text message about the couple’s dog. This text message, a violation of the 20-day order, formed the basis of a long-term domestic violence protective order entered a few weeks later. The long-term order was affirmed on appeal. A little over a year later, the husband was granted a new long-term protective order based on the same texting incident. The wife again appealed, but while the appeal was pending the superior court dissolved the second order as having been unlawfully granted. Before the Alaska Supreme Court, the wife challenged both the first long-term order and the second long-term order. The Court concluded that her challenges to the first order were barred by res judicata, and that her challenge to the second order was moot. The Court therefore dismissed the appeal. View "Mitchell v. Mitchell" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Gordon Taylor and Tamra Faris were married in 1973. For most of their marriage, they lived in Juneau, Alaska. Faris spent her entire career working for the federal government, earning a Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) pension. In 2004 Faris accepted a promotion and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. She moved to Portland, Oregon, also for work reasons, in 2006 and at the time of this decision, resided there. She retired from her career with the federal government in 2010. In 2013 Taylor filed for divorce. He and Faris reached a settlement agreement in February 2014 and the court entered a divorce decree at that time. Three days later, however, Faris sought to withdraw distribution of property from that agreement. Although Faris had moved to a different state several years prior, the superior court determined the couple’s date of separation was in 2014. The court also recaptured pension payments the two received after this date. Faris appealed, arguing that these and various other aspects of the superior court’s property division were erroneous. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court neither erred nor abused its discretion in its determination of the date of separation. And most of the wife’s other challenges to the property division were without merit. But the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s failure to make specific factual findings in its recapture analysis. View "Faris v. Taylor" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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In these separate but consolidated appeals, the issue common to both cases presented to the Alaska Supreme Court for review centered on whether new federal regulations materially changed the qualifications required of an expert testifying in a child in need of aid (CINA) case involving children subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). To support the termination of parental rights, ICWA required the “testimony of qualified expert witnesses . . . that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child.” Under the new federal regulations, experts who formerly could be presumptively qualified, based on their ability to testify about prevailing cultural and social standards in the child’s tribe, for example, had to also be qualified to testify about the “causal relationship between the particular conditions in the home and the likelihood that continued custody of the child will result in serious emotional or physical damage to the particular child who is the subject of the child-custody proceeding.” The Supreme Court concluded the federal regulations had materially changed an expert’s qualifications, and in these two cases, the challenged expert witnesses failed to satisfy this higher standard imposed by controlling federal law. For this reason the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the orders terminating the parents’ parental rights and remanded for further proceedings. View "L.B. (Mother) v Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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Steve H. and Lucy A. were the parents of Donald, an Indian child2 born in April 2013. By the time Donald was born, Steve and Lucy were no longer in a relationship and Steve no longer lived in Anchorage. Donald lived with Lucy until the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) assumed emergency custody of him due to alcohol-related neglect shortly after he was born. Although Steve knew that Lucy had substance abuse problems, he left Donald in her care. When OCS took emergency custody of Donald in June 2013, Steve was “unreachable.” Donald was placed in a foster home. Steve appealed the superior court’s decision terminating his parental rights. He argued the superior court clearly erred in finding that he abandoned his son under the Child in Need of Aid (CINA) statutes. He also argued there was insufficient evidence to support termination, claiming that the record did not support the superior court’s findings that returning his son to his care would risk emotional or physical harm and that termination was in his son’s best interests. Because the superior court did not clearly err in making these findings, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Steve H. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law