Articles 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

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In this divorce matter, at the conclusion of trial, the wife physically assaulted husband's attorney. The incident led to criminal charges, and the judge presiding over the divorce testified in the criminal case as a witness. The judge still presided over the divorce matter when wife made motions to reopen the case and redistribute the marital property. She appealed when the superior court denied these motions, arguing the judge should have recused herself after witnessing the assault in the courtroom and later testifying about it. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion in any of the challenged rulings and affirmed. View "Johnson v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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The superior court ordered a guardianship based in part on expert testimony that the father could not yet be left alone with his daughter, given the state of his progress with sex offender treatment, and in part because his probation conditions prohibited unsupervised contact with anyone under 18. A father appealed a superior court order granting long-term guardianship of his daughter to maternal relatives in another state. The father had a history of inappropriate sexual relationships, and during four years of the child’s life was incarcerated following a federal conviction for transportation of child pornography. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court had the statutory authority to establish a guardianship under these circumstances. But the court’s finding that the daughter was likely to suffer serious emotional or physical harm if returned to her father’s care was based in part on findings that lack the required basis in the expert testimony. The Court remanded for the superior court to consider whether the remaining findings were sufficient to support the guardianship order. View "Jude M. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Svcs." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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In a 2008 divorce decree based on a settlement agreement, an ex-husband was ordered to sell the marital home and pay his ex-wife her share of the estate. But by 2015, he had not yet done so. The superior court ordered the ex-husband to sell the home in 90 days and entered judgment against him after the deadline passed. The ex-husband appealed on due process and equity grounds, and the ex-wife appealed seeking prejudgment interest, attorney’s fees, and costs. Because both parties’ arguments lacked merit, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order. View "Easley v. Easley" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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A father requested court-appointed counsel in a child custody modification proceeding after learning that the mother had hired a private attorney. The court denied the request. The father (supported in part by several amici curiae) claimed that the denial violated his due process and equal protection rights under theAlaska Constitution. The Supreme Court disagreed, declining to expand its prior decisions by mandating court-appointed counsel for every indigent parent in a child custody proceeding when the opposing parent was represented by private counsel. The Court concluded that on the facts of this case the father’s constitutional rights were not violated by the denial of court-appointed counsel. View "Dennis O. v. Stephanie O." on Justia Law

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Alleging that parenting failures waived the biological father’s consent, a stepfather petitioned to adopt his wife’s daughter over the biological father’s objection. The superior court determined that the proposed adoption was not in the child’s best interests and denied the petition. On reconsideration the trial court noted that the child’s best interests determination was sufficient to deny the petition and concluded that a determination whether the biological father had waived consent was unnecessary, but nonetheless determined that the biological father’s actions did not constitute a waiver of consent. The stepfather appealed. After review, the Supreme Court found that because the record supported the court’s best interests determination (and that by itself was sufficient to block the adoption) the Court affirmed the decision to deny the adoption petition. View "In Re Adoption of Hannah L." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law