Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law

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In late April 2018, 15-year-old Jessica J. traveled from Iowa to Alaska to spend the summer with family friends. Jessica’s divorced parents shared legal custody; her mother, who retained primary physical custody, gave Jessica permission. Jessica’s mother then changed her mind and told Jessica to return home. Jessica’s mother booked several return flights for Jessica, the final on May 30. On May 30 Jessica’s mother reported to Iowa police that the Alaska family friends refused to send Jessica home; the police treated Jessica as a missing person. Alaska police located her at the family friends’ home and indicated she was “safe until [her] mother c[ould] pay for plane fare out of Alaska.” But the Iowa police still considered Jessica a missing person, and a week later Alaska police located her at a shelter, where she apparently had gone to avoid getting “the family that she was staying with in trouble if there were legal repercussions . . . for staying in Alaska.” Police transported her to a youth facility pending further legal proceedings. The Interstate Compact for Juveniles (ICJ) governed the return of juveniles who have left their home states without permission. The home state sought her return under the ICJ, and the Alaska superior court complied. The superior court found that it was not authorized to consider the juvenile’s best interests and that the requisition paperwork demonstrated proof of entitlement for her return. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order, holding that the ICJ authorized only the home state to consider a juvenile’s best interests in this context and that proof of entitlement was established in this case. View "Jessica J. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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In 2015 the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of three children due to the father’s substance abuse issues and the mother’s mental health issues. Both parents failed to make any meaningful progress on their case plans in the first year of OCS’s custody. But after moving to Washington in 2016, the parents made significant progress and actively engaged in a variety of services. At the time of the termination trial the father had been sober for two years, but OCS still had concerns regarding the mother’s ability to manage her mental health and the parents’ ability to safely co-parent all of their children at the same time. In June 2018 the superior court terminated the parents’ rights to their three children. The parents appealed, arguing the superior court erred by finding they failed to remedy the conduct that made their children in need of aid. They also argued that the court erred by finding that termination of their parental rights was in their children’s best interests. And the father independently argued the court erred by finding that OCS made reasonable efforts to reunite him with his children. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court’s finding that the father failed to remedy his conduct was clearly erroneous, and reversed termination of his parental rights. Because the Court's resolution of the father’s parental rights could alter the superior court’s best interests analysis with regard to the mother, the Supreme Court vacated termination of the mother’s parental rights and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Marian V. v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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The father in this case had not been a substantial part of his daughter’s life when the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) took custody of her from her mother. The father was coping with his own mental health, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues when this case began, and was receiving services to address those issues. OCS facilitated some visitation between the father and the daughter, encouraged the father to continue participating in the services he was already receiving, and added parenting classes to the regimen. By all accounts, the father was making progress. But while the case was ongoing, OCS received a report that the father had sent nude photos of his genitals to a minor female. OCS referred the father for a sex offender assessment and his history of other sexual misconduct came to light. Upon receiving the assessing psychologist’s conclusions that the father was a risk to his daughter’s safety, OCS moved forward with terminating his parental rights. The superior court terminated the father’s rights after a two-day trial. He appealed, arguing only that OCS failed to make active efforts. Because the record demonstrated OCS made active efforts to reunify the father and his daughter, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s termination of the father’s parental rights. View "Sam S. v. Alaska, Department of Health & Social Services, Office of Children’s Services" on Justia Law

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A husband appealed his divorce order, raising multiple issues. The issues considered by the Alaska Supreme Court were: (1) whether the wife’s bank accounts, personal leave from her job, and the house should have been treated as marital property; (2) whether he should have been reimbursed for damage his wife allegedly caused to his separate property and marital property he received (which he alleged the trial court over-valued); and (3) whether the conditions placed on his unsupervised visitation with the children were unwarranted. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court for the most part; however, the Court vacated and remanded on the classification of the wife’s bank accounts and the valuation of the husband’s damaged property. View "Pasley v Pasley" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Sabrina V. was the mother of Kaleb D., born 2005. By 2016 Kaleb was living in Wasilla with his father, now deceased. Sabrina had been living outside of Alaska for some years; the parents did not have a court order regarding Kaleb’s custody. Sabrina also had an older daughter, Lizzie, from a previous relationship. Lizzie was committed to the custody of the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) in September 2014 in an earlier child in need of aid (CINA) case. In February 2016, after a successful six-month home visit with Sabrina in Montana, OCS released Lizzie to Sabrina. The Alaska Office of Child Services filed an emergency petition for temporary custody of Kaleb, and to adjudicate him as a child in need of aid. The petition listed Kaleb’s father as the sole caregiver, and claimed to not have current contact information for Sabrina despite her having released Lizzie roughly two months earlier. Sabrina later testified her residence had not changed between her reunification with Lizzie and the initiation of CINA proceedings for Kaleb. At the emergency probable cause hearing an OCS caseworker testified that Kaleb had told OCS he had not seen Sabrina in roughly two years and that she “wasn’t a good mom.” The court granted OCS temporary custody. Sabrina appealed the ultimate termination of her parental rights to Kaleb after it was determined she signed and then attempted to withdraw a voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. At the time she signed the relinquishment, her child was living with his paternal grandmother, who hoped to adopt him. When it later became clear that the grandmother would not be able to adopt the child, Sabrina signed a notice of her withdrawal of relinquishment despite a ten-day window for do had passed. Three days later she filed the notice in superior court. That same day, apparently without being aware of the withdrawal notice, the court issued an order terminating the mother’s parental rights. Because, assuming the superior court had discretion to allow the untimely withdrawal, the Alaska Supreme Court found it did not abuse its discretion by declining to do so, so the Court affirmed termination of Sabrina’s parental rights. View "S.V. (Mother) v. Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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Regina S. and Michael C. married in 2000, and had two children, both boys, from the marriage. Regina filed for divorce in late 2014, alleging Michael had engaged in domestic violence against her. The court thus awarded temporary physical and legal custody of the children to Regina pending a divorce trial and permanent custody award. The court restricted Michael to supervised visitation. Michael never actually had any supervised visits with the children, however, because in May 2015 (when the visits were to begin) Regina left Alaska and took the boys with her. Ultimately sole legal and primary physical custody of the children was awarded to the mother. The trial court did so with “reluctance,” finding that the mother had “engaged in . . . egregious parental alienation,” but also finding that the children had become “adjusted . . . to life” in the mother’s care. The court awarded substantial periods of visitation to the father. It explained that if the mother interfered with visitation, it “w[ould] likely change its custody determination to award . . . custody” to the father. Visitation subsequently failed to occur, and the court ordered the mother to show cause. Following a hearing, the court held the mother in contempt and modified the custody decree to give custody to the father. Regina appealed the modification of custody, claiming she had inadequate notice that custody would be determined at the show-cause hearing. She contended the superior court should have continued the hearing when her counsel withdrew several days earlier. She also claimed the court’s modification of custody was based on the court’s mistaken conclusion that she committed custodial interference, a crime of domestic violence. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the mother had adequate notice of the hearing and that the trial court did not err when it found that her conduct constituted custodial interference. View "Regina C., n/k/a Regina S. v. Michael C." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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A mother appealed the superior court’s decision adjudicating her child as a child in need of aid, contending the court relied in part on the record from her previous custody proceeding without giving her prior notice. The mother argued that by not giving her notice, the court violated her due process rights. Relying on cases involving judicial bias, she then claimed the superior court’s due process violation warranted automatic reversal of the court’s adjudication finding, or, alternatively, reversal on the basis that the error was not harmless. The Alaska Supreme Court determined, after review of this case, the mother failed to demonstrate that this alleged error was anything but harmless. View "Amy S. v. State of Alaska, DHSS, OCS" on Justia Law

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Jerry Hatten lived with Beverly Toland for 20 years. He died intestate. Hatten had named Toland as the sole beneficiary to his individual retirement account, but did not provide for her to inherit any of his other assets. She sought a larger share of his estate, arguing: (1) Hatten promised to support her financially if she moved to Alaska to live with him; and (2) the court should divide Hatten's property according to their intent because she and Hatten were domestic partners. A special master recommended rejecting Toland's claims, and the superior court adopted the master's recommendation. Finding no reversible error in that decision, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Jerry Hatten" on Justia Law

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Guy Berry and Colleen Coulman had a daughter, born in May 2010. Berry and Coulman never married. Berry was a soldier stationed at Fort Wainwright until shortly before their daughter was born, when he was transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Berry and Coulman did not have a custody agreement. Coulman had sole physical custody of their daughter from her birth. After Berry’s transfer Coulman contacted Alaska’s Child Support Services Division (CSSD) for assistance in obtaining child support from Berry. In May 2011 CSSD entered an order requiring Berry to pay Coulman $773 per month in child support. Berry appealed his child support obligation, arguing: (1) the superior court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify the order; or alternatively, (2) the court abused its discretion by modifying the support order without sufficient proof of a material change in circumstances; and (3) the court impermissibly retroactively modified the support order. The Alaska Supreme Court held the superior court properly exercised its jurisdiction in modifying the support order, that it did not abuse its discretion in modifying the order because there was sufficient proof of material change of circumstances, and that the one-day retroactive modification was a de minimis error that did not require correction. View "Berry v. Coulman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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A husband appealed the superior court’s unequal property division in a divorce proceeding that gave the wife the majority of the marital estate. He argued the superior court abused its discretion when dividing the property, and that the property division was therefore inequitable. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the property division was neither clearly unjust nor based on clearly erroneous factual findings, and affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Downs v. Downs" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law