Articles Posted in Family Law

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Parties in a divorce disputed the value of the husband’s post-retirement military medical benefits. The superior court determined that the benefits were a marital asset, but declined to value them or account for their value when dividing the marital estate. The court instead ordered the husband to pay for comparable medical benefits for the wife for the rest of her life. The court also determined that most of the wife’s student loans were marital debt and allocated that debt to her. Both parties appealed the superior court’s decision regarding the husband’s medical benefits; the husband also appealed the superior court’s characterization of the student loans as marital debt. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s characterization of the wife’s student loans as marital debt, but reversed and remanded for the superior court to assign a value to the husband’s post-retirement military medical benefits and to finalize an equitable distribution of the marital estate. View "Grove v. Grove" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Barry H., the father in a Child in Need of Aid (CINA) proceeding sought to dismiss his court-appointed counsel and represent himself. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took emergency custody of four of their children in February 2013 after receiving reports that Barry was physically and sexually abusing members of his family. At their initial hearings both Barry and Donna agreed to have counsel appointed for them. The trial court found Barry could not conduct himself in a rational and coherent manner sufficient to allow him to proceed without an attorney and denied his request. After a six-day trial the court terminated his parental rights to three of his children. The father appealed, arguing that the trial court erroneously deprived him of his right to represent himself during the CINA proceeding. Finding no reversible decision, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Barry H. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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A father's parental rights were terminated as to his daughter, an Indian child, diagnosed with sexualized, aggressive behavior. He appealed the termination, arguing he remedied his prior misconduct by completing outpatient treatment programs, and that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) violated its obligation to provide active efforts to reunify the family by discontinuing his visitation after his daughter returned from an out-of-state treatment program. The Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court reasonably concluded that the visitation was not in the child’s best interest, that the father had failed to comply with substance abuse testing and delayed a critical sex offender risk assessment, and that it would cause serious emotional damage to return the child to his home. The Court therefore affirm the order terminating his parental rights. View "Bob S. v. Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Divorced parents shared equal custody of their son pursuant to an agreement. The mother asked the superior court to modify the agreement to allow her to move with the child to Hawaii. Following a two-hour hearing the court modified custody, granting primary physical custody to the mother; it also modified legal custody to allow the mother final decision-making authority, subject to later court ratification, though neither party had asked that legal custody be modified. The father appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not clearly err or abuse its discretion when it granted modification and awarded primary physical custody to the mother, and it affirmed that part of the superior court’s decision. However, the Supreme Court held it was an abuse of discretion to modify legal custody when neither party had requested it, the parties were not on notice that it was at issue, and the evidence did not demonstrate a need for it. The modification of legal custody was therefore vacated. View "Judd v. Judd" on Justia Law

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Divorced parents shared custody of their son equally pursuant to a parenting agreement. The mother asked the superior court to modify the agreement to allow her to move with the child to Hawaii. The trial court modified custody, granting primary physical custody to the mother; it also modified legal custody to allow the mother final decision-making authority, subject to later court ratification, though neither party had asked that legal custody be modified. The father appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not clearly err or abuse its discretion when it granted modification and awarded primary physical custody to the mother, and affirmed that part of the court’s decision. But the Supreme Court held it was an abuse of discretion to modify legal custody when neither party had requested it, the parties were not on notice that it was at issue, and the evidence did not demonstrate a need for it. The Court therefore vacated the modification of legal custody. View "Judd v. Burns" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Caitlyn E., a Yupik woman, was the mother of Maggie and Bridget, ages nine and six at trial, who are Indian children within the meaning of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) based on their affiliation with the Orutsararmiut Native Council (the Tribe). Caitlyn struggled with abuse of both legal and illegal drugs since a young age. Maggie tested positive for cocaine and marijuana when she was born. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) received other reports of harm; at a doctor’s visit when the girls were toddlers, they reportedly had multiple impetigo sores on their bodies and had to be cleaned by the doctor, and Caitlyn smelled like marijuana. Caitlyn was also reported to have been violent toward both her daughters, kicking Maggie and giving her a bloody nose, and, while drunk, swinging Bridget around “like a rag doll.” The superior court terminated a Caitlyn's parental rights to the two girls. She appealed, contesting the qualification of the ICWA-required expert witness and the finding that OCS made active efforts to prevent the breakup of the Indian family. Because the superior court’s decision to qualify the expert witness was not an abuse of discretion, and because the superior court’s active efforts finding was not erroneous, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the termination of the mother’s parental rights. View "Caitlyn E. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not clearly err in finding that the father did not remedy the mental health issues that were “the root cause” of his inability to safely parent his daughter. The Court also concluded that it was not an abuse of discretion to deny the father’s motion to allow his attorney to withdraw. The superior court terminated a father’s parental rights to his daughter. He appealed the superior court’s finding that he failed to remedy the conduct and conditions that placed his child in need of aid, arguing that he cleaned up the family home, obtained a commercial driver’s license and a job, and passed drug tests during the pendency of the case. He also argued the superior court deprived him of his right to self-representation when it denied his motion to allow his appointed counsel to withdraw shortly before the termination trial. View "Matthew H. v. Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed with the probate master and superior court’s underlying conclusion that a paternity determination could not be made in estate proceedings, or that a laches defense could apply in this context. A decedent left a will stating he had no children. But during probate proceedings a man in his early 30s claimed to be the decedent’s son, requested genetic testing on the decedent’s cremated remains, and filed numerous motions in an attempt to share in the decedent’s estate. The man’s mother also filed numerous motions in the proceedings, claiming to be a creditor of the decedent’s estate and seeking recovery of child support from the man’s birth to his 18th birthday. After previously signing orders denying the motions based on the probate master’s reasoning that paternity determinations may not be made in estate proceedings, the superior court ultimately ruled that: (1) laches barred the man’s and his mother’s efforts to establish paternity; and (2) because paternity had not been established, neither the man nor his mother had standing to pursue a claim in the estate proceedings. Despite disagreeing with these findings, the Supreme Court nonetheless affirmed the superior court’s decision with respect to the man’s mother on the alternative ground that her putative creditor claim: the only basis by which she could be an interested person in the estate proceedings unquestionably was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. But if the man proved to be the decedent’s son he had, at a minimum, certain statutory rights that: (1) may be established through declaratory judgment in the probate proceedings; and (2) might not be barred by a statute of limitations. Because the statute of limitations defense to the man’s claim was briefed only in limited fashion in the superior court and was not ruled on by that court, and because the issue has not been adequately briefed to the Supreme Court, the Court asked for supplemental briefing be filed to assist it in resolving whether a statute of limitations may bar the man’s recovery from the estate. View "Estate of Seward" on Justia Law

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In this divorce matter, the parties agreed to divide the husband’s retirement benefit based on its present value and implemented the division with a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). In 2014, after the husband received an updated benefit projection that calculated the wife’s share of the benefit using his salary at retirement instead of at divorce, he sought to modify the QDRO. He asked the court to require that her benefit be based upon the same salary data used in a 2006 calculation. The superior court denied the motion. Because the settlement did not contain clear language establishing the use of the earlier salary the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Thomson v. Thomson" on Justia Law

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Lisa Reasner suffered years of sexual abuse while in foster care and after the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) approved her adoption. Years later, Reasner sued OCS after discovering that OCS might have played a role in allowing her abuse. The superior court concluded that Reasner’s claims were untimely and granted summary judgment in favor of OCS. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed and remanded. The Court found the superior court erred in granting summary judgment to OCS based on the statute of limitations because it found a genuine issue of material facts existed as to when Reasner's claims accrued. The Court found Reasner's remaining claims could have withstood summary judgment. View "Reasner v. Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law