Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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Two tribes claimed to be a child’s tribe for purposes of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA): The Native Village of Wales claimed the child was a tribal member; the Native Village of Chignik Lagoon claims that the child is “eligible for tribal membership.” After the superior court terminated the biological parents’ parental rights, Wales moved to transfer subsequent proceedings, including potential adoption, to its tribal court. Chignik Lagoon intervened in the child in need of aid (CINA) case, arguing that the child was not a member of Wales under Wales’s constitution and that transfer of further proceedings to the Wales tribal court was not authorized under ICWA. The superior court found that the child was a member of Wales and that Wales was the child’s tribe for ICWA purposes, and therefore granted the transfer of jurisdiction. Chignik Lagoon appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s determination that the child was a member of Wales and that Wales was appropriately designated as the child’s tribe for ICWA purposes. The Supreme Court also concluded that, given that ruling, Chignik Lagoon lacked standing to challenge the transfer of proceedings to the Wales tribal court. View "Native Village of Chignik Lagoon v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Soc. Svcs." on Justia Law

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A woman filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of the father of her child because the child was conceived as a result of sexual abuse. After years of litigation, including a previous appeal, the superior court held a hearing on the petition and denied it. The woman appealed. "The court’s factual findings are supported by the record, and we do 'not re-weigh evidence when the record provides clear support for the trial court’s ruling.'" Accordingly, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s denial of her petition. View "Angelica C. v. Jonathan C." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A couple separated after three years of marriage. They had a son who was later diagnosed with several mental disabilities. The father paid child support until the son turned 19; when the son was in his twenties the father filed for divorce. The superior court entered a divorce decree and ordered the father to pay post-majority child support, finding that the son was unable to support himself by reason of his disability. The father appealed, arguing that the superior court lacked jurisdiction and the statutory authority to order post-majority support and that the court abused its discretion by ordering him to pay the entirety of the son’s living expenses. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s exercise of jurisdiction and authority to issue the support order. However, because of an inconsistency in the support order’s application, the case was remanded to the superior court for reconsideration of whether the father’s support obligation — 100% of the son’s living expenses — represented a fair percentage. View "Daum v. Daum" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Jennifer Monegan was the birth mother of a child born in 2011, and Scout Monegan was the child’s adoptive father. Gregory and Julie Husby were the child’s maternal grandparents and lived in Oregon. Jennifer and her child lived with the Husbys for a time after the child’s birth; the Husbys provided childcare and were significantly involved in the child’s life until he was two and a half years old. However, Jennifer’s relationship with the Husbys began to deteriorate after she started dating Scout. After Jennifer and Scout married in 2013, the Husbys petitioned for visitation in Oregon, where all of the parties lived at the time. Jennifer and the Husbys came to a mediated agreement providing, among other things, that the Husbys would have visitation with the child one weekend per month for 32 hours, as well as unlimited written and telephonic contact.The Monegans moved to Alaska in March 2018. In-person visits occurred less frequently after the relocation: between March 2018 and August 2019 the Husbys visited the child seven times. The Husbys tried to maintain their relationship with the child through letters, gifts, and weekly phone calls, and claimed they were able to do so through the summer of 2019. In September 2019 the Monegans filed a complaint in the superior court to terminate the Husbys’ visitation rights, alleging it was not in the child’s best interests to continue visitation. The Husbys counterclaimed for modification of the stipulated order to allow “reasonable visitation” with the child. The Husbys then moved to enforce the stipulated visitation order. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded AS 25.20.065(a) governed the motion to modify the grandparents' visitation, and when a grandparent seeks visitation over a parent’s objection, the grandparent must show clear and convincing evidence that the parent was unfit or that denying visitation will be detrimental to the child. If the court awards visitation rights to a grandparent, and the parent later moves to modify the grandparent’s visitation rights, so long as the parents were protected by the parental preference rule in the proceedings resulting in the grandparent’s visitation rights, the "parental preference rule" does not apply in later proceedings to modify those visitation rights. Having clarified the applicable legal standards, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the superior court’s order in this case because it was error to decide the motions to modify the grandparents’ visitation rights without first holding a hearing on disputed issues of fact. View "Husby v. Monegan" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Supreme Court granted the Office of Public Advocacy’s (OPA) petition for review of whether counsel provided through Alaska Legal Service Corporation’s (ALSC) pro bono program was counsel “provided by a public agency” within the meaning of Flores v. Flores, 598 P.2d 890 (Alaska 1979) and OPA’s enabling statute. The Supreme Court concluded such counsel was indeed “provided by a public agency” and affirmed the superior court’s order appointing OPA to represent an indigent parent in a child custody case. View "Office of Public Advocacy v. Berezkin f/n/a Smith et al." on Justia Law

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Orville Jenkins appealed a superior court’s division of property following his divorce. The Alaska Supreme Court rejected his arguments that the superior court: (1) improperly denied his motion to continue trial; (2) incorrectly allocated marital debt to him; (3) improperly authorized sale of the marital home before finalizing the property division; and (4) showed bias against him. But the Supreme Court agreed with his arguments that it was error to: (1) decline to consider whether his wife’s separate property was transmuted to marital property through contract; and (2) find that no portion of earnings on the wife’s separate investments was marital when the taxes on those earnings were paid with marital funds. The judgment was thus reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Layton v. Dea" on Justia Law

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A married couple with two children legally separated. They agreed the father would pay the mother child support while they lived at separate residences and alternated custody of the children. This arrangement was incorporated into a separation decree. But instead of living apart, the couple continued to live together with the children at the marital home. During this time, the father paid the majority of the household expenses, but never paid the agreed-upon court-ordered child support. After three years of maintaining this arrangement, the couple divorced and the mother sought to collect the father’s accrued child support arrears. The father moved to preclude collection under Alaska Civil Rule 90.3(h)(3), and the superior court granted his motion. The mother appealed, contending that the plain language of Rule 90.3(h)(3) required an obligor-parent to exercise primary physical custody of a child before preclusion can apply. The Alaska Supreme Court noted it had previously recognized that the equitable principles underlying Rule 90.3(h)(3) could support preclusion in some circumstances that do not fit neatly within the Rule’s plain language. Because these principles applied to the unique circumstances of this case, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order precluding collection of the arrears. View "Aparezuk v. Schlosser" on Justia Law

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In two separate cases, an Alaska superior court decided that it could not terminate parental rights to children with alleged Indian heritage without cultural expert testimony, and that the cultural expert testimony presented was too vague and generalized to be helpful. Although it was error to construe the Alaska Supreme Court precedent to require cultural expert testimony in every ICWA case, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision to require expert testimony based on its explanation that it could not competently weigh the evidence of harm in these cases without cultural context. And because the cultural expert testimony presented did not provide a meaningful assessment of tribal social and cultural standards and was not grounded in the facts of these particular cases, the Supreme Court held the court did not clearly err by giving the testimony no weight. The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's decision to deny termination of parental rights in each case. View "Alaska Dept. Health & Soc. Serv. v. C.A., et al." on Justia Law

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A divorcing couple settled their property dispute by executing a settlement agreement that included a litigation waiver. The superior court accepted the settlement five months later. The former wife subsequently sued her former husband, alleging tort claims based upon actions taken in the months between the time the agreement was executed and when it was accepted. The superior court granted the husband's motions to dismiss and for summary judgment. The wife appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that one of the torts alleged by the wife did not exist in Alaska, so the Court affirmed dismissal of that claim. However, because the settlement agreement was effective between the parties when signed, even though it was subject to court approval, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment regarding the other torts and remanded for further proceedings on those issues. View "Notti v. Hoffman" on Justia Law

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A man filed suit against a former romantic partner to resolve disputes about property acquired during their relationship. The superior court ruled the parties had been in a domestic partnership (a marriage-like relationship) with implications for division of the parties’ property when the relationship ended. It then determined the woman owed the man for his contributions toward a Wasilla property they jointly bought and improved, an out-of-state property acquired in his name that was later sold at a loss, and veterinary bills charged to the man’s credit card. Although the Alaska Supreme Court determined it was error to determine the parties were in a domestic partnership without making predicate factual findings, this error did not affect the superior court’s ruling on the Wasilla property or veterinary bills, and the superior court’s decision on those points was affirmed. But the Court concluded the error could affect the ruling on the out-of-state property, so the case was remanded for additional proceedings on that issue. View "Wright v. Dropik" on Justia Law