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Family Law Legal Research Blog

FAMILY LAW: Time Limits on Divorce Hearings

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 @ 16:04 PM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 4

Brett Turner, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     A perennial problem in family law practice is arbitrary judges who dislike family law cases and impose strict time limits upon trials. Appellate courts are aware of this problem, and in extreme cases they have granted relief.

     In Kilnapp v. Kilnapp, 140 So. 3d 1051 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2014), the trial judge set a three-hour limit on the hearing. After only an hour had passed, the trial court abruptly ended the hearing. The wife had presented only one witness, and the husband's counsel had not even finished with direct examination of the husband. The appellate court summarily reversed. "The trial court erred when it denied the husband his basic and fundamental right to due process, specifically the right to be heard." Id. at 1054.

     The husband did not have, of course, a right to be heard at unlimited length. For example, even if the husband honestly wanted an entire week of testimony, the trial court had discretion to impose a reasonable time limit.

     But the time limit imposed in Kilnapp was unreasonable, in two different ways. First, a reasonable time limit should apply equally to both parties. In Kilnapp, the wife was able to present all of her evidence, while the husband was able to present only some of his.

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Topics: family law, Brett R. Turner, arbitrary cutoff, divorce hearing, time limit

FAMILY LAW: Court Obtains Jurisdiction Under UCCJEA When Action Is Filed, and It Can Exercise Jurisdiction Even After All Parties Leave State

Posted by Sandra L. Thomas on Wed, Feb 10, 2016 @ 11:02 AM

The Lawletter Vol 41 No 1

Sandra Thomas, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     Resolving a question that is not expressly answered by the language of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction And Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA"), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Upson v. Wallace, 3 A.3d 1148 (D.C. 2010), held that if a trial court had home-state jurisdiction to issue an initial custody determination under the UCCJEA at the time the action was filed, then the court could still exercise that jurisdiction even after all parties had left the state.

     In Upson, the child, Georgiana, was born in Virginia in May 2004. On March 2, 2005, the child's father, Wallace, filed for custody of Georgiana in Alexandria, Virginia. In April 2005, the child's mother, Upson, relocated with the child from Virginia to the District of Columbia.

     Upson subsequently attempted to litigate custody in the District of Columbia, but Wallace's motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction was granted. Upson challenged the dismissal and ultimately was able to bring before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals the question of the validity of the custody order that had been entered by the Virginia court after all parties had left Virginia.

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Topics: family law, Sandra L. Thomas, Upson v. Wallace, jurisdiction of initial custody

FAMILY LAW: Constitutionality of Grandparent Visitation Statutes

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Tue, Jan 19, 2016 @ 13:01 PM

 The Lawletter Vol 40 No 12

Brett Turner, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     One of the hardest issues in all of family law is grandparent visitation. In Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Washington state statute allowing the court to award grandparent visitation based only upon the best interests of the child, finding that such a broad standard violates the liberty interest of the parents in having custody of their children.

     But Troxel did not decide what the proper standard for grandparent visitation is; it decided only what that standard is not. Case law since Troxel has disagreed substantially as to what grandparents must prove in order to be awarded visitation.

     No state has written more opinions in fewer cases on this issue than Alabama. In Ex parte E.R.G., 73 So. 3d 634 (Ala.2011), a nine-judge court wrote six separate opinions on the subject. The end result was that the court struck down Alabama Code section 30-3-4.1, which allowed the court to award grandparent visitation on a pure best-interests basis.

     The legislature then added the following language to the statute: "If the child is living with one or both biological or adoptive parents, there shall be a rebuttable presumption for purposes of this section that the parent or parents with whom the child is living know what is in the best interests of the child." Ala. Code § 30-3-4.1(d).

     The constitutionality of the modified statute arose recently in Weldon v. Ballow, No. 2140471, 2015 WL 6618983 (Ala. Civ. App. Oct. 30, 2015) (not yet released for publication), in a case in which the child lived with a biological parent, so that the statutory presumption applied. The issue was whether the presumption saved the statute. Answering this question required a five-judge court to write four opinions. But when the votes were tallied, the statute was held unconstitutional for a second time.

     The first opinion, signed by two judges, construed Troxel to provide that grandparent visitation cannot be awarded based on a best-interests-of-the-child standard alone, regardless of the burden of proof. "Under the 2011 amendments," while the burden of proof is reversed when the child is living with a parent, "a court can still award grandparent visitation over the objection of a custodial parent if the court decides that it is in the best interests of the child. The [Grandparent Visitation Act], as amended, continues to invade the fundamental rights of parents to make their own determinations as to the best interests of their children." Id. at *14.

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Topics: family law, Brett R. Turner, grandparent visitation statutes, constitutionality, best-interests standard

FAMILY LAW: Delegation of Power to Decide Custody and Visitation

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Thu, Oct 1, 2015 @ 15:10 PM

The Lawletter Vol 40 No 8

Brett Turner, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     In In re Marriage of Iqbal & Khan, 2014 IL App (2d) 131306, 11 N.E.3d 1, the two parties, of the Islamic faith, signed a separation agreement ("PNA"). The PNA named a prominent member of the local Islamic community as Counselor. It then provided:

     Husband and Wife agree that an unreasonable divorce (without Counselor's express written approval) is a violation and contrary to the purposes and intents of this agreement, and an unreasonable divorce sought by either party will forfeit their rights to custody of the children and any rights conveyed in this agreement. If either party seeks an unreasonable divorce, they hereby agree to surrender full custody rights to the other, and agree to only reasonable visitation rights to the Children.

Id. ¶ 28, 11 N.E.3d at 10 (quoting PNA).

     The trial court held that the PNA was completely unenforceable, and the appellate court affirmed. To begin with, by providing that a party who sought an "unreasonable divorce" lost custody, and by giving the Counselor exclusive power to define "unreasonable," the PNA delegated to the Counselor the power to determine custody. Such delegation violated public policy:

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Topics: family law, Brett R. Turner, Islamic separation agreement, unenforceable agreement, public policy violation

FAMILY LAW: Did Actions of Alleged Father in Response to Custody Petition Amount to Consent to Court's Exercise of Personal Jurisdiction?

Posted by Gale Burns on Wed, Sep 16, 2015 @ 15:09 PM

The Lawletter Vol 40 No 7

Sandra Thomas, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     In a recent decision of the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, Maryland's intermediate appellate court addressed the question of whether a New York resident could be subject to personal jurisdiction in a Maryland paternity and support action based on his filing of an answer to the original complaint for custody, his request for genetic testing, and his request for discovery. Friedetzky v. Hsia, No. 1187 Sept. Term 2014, 2015 WL 4081290 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. July 6, 2015).

     The court of special appeals held that "by affirmatively requesting genetic testing in his answer" to the mother's custody petition and "by initiating discovery relating to matters of paternity and child support," the alleged father "triggered the UIFSA [Uniform Interstate Family Support Act] long-arm statute and waived the limited immunity otherwise afforded in a custody proceeding under the UCCJEA [Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act]." Id. at *1.

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Topics: family law, Sandra L. Thomas, The Lawletter Vol 40 No 7, custody petition, court's jurisdiction

FAMILY LAW: Support Guidelines and Retirement Benefits

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Mon, Jul 27, 2015 @ 08:07 AM

The Lawletter Vol 40 No 6

Brett Turner, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     All 50 states have now had child support guidelines for more than a decade. Increasing numbers of states are experimenting with spousal support guidelines, especially for temporary support while a divorce case is pending.

     When applying any set of guidelines for spousal or child support, the first step is always to compute the incomes of the parties. Such computation raises a set of tricky issues when retirement benefits are involved.

     In Milinovich v. Womack, 343 P.3d 924 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2015), the father was a retired professional baseball player. His income dropped materially when his playing years ended, and he filed a motion to reduce his child support. To compute the guideline amount of support, the court had to determine the father's income.

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Topics: family law, Brett R. Turner, retirement benefits, support guidelines

Windsor Update: The Supreme Court Speaks

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Fri, Jun 26, 2015 @ 15:06 PM

Brett R. Turner, Senior Attorney, Family Law, National Legal Research Group

      On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. In a very sharply divided 5-4 decision, the Court held that the fundamental right to marry applies to persons of the same sex.

     The majority opinion strongly resembles Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), the landmark decision that recognized that the right to marry includes the right to marry a person of a different race or color. The opinion identified one single, unitary, fundamental right to marry, which is identified as a fundamental component of American life and, indeed, of human existence.

     The opinion then defined the question as whether this fundamental right to marry extended to same-sex relationships. The Court held that it did. Given the central importance of marriage to human existence, to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage would deeply demean gay persons:

     There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to [the importance of marriage]. Yet by virtue of their exclusion from that institution, same-sex couples are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage. This harm results in more than just material burdens. Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives. As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society. Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.

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FAMILY LAW: How Not to Use Out-of-State Authority When Writing an Appellate Brief

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Thu, Jun 11, 2015 @ 15:06 PM

The Lawletter Vol 40 No 4

Brett Turner, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     A recent Utah Supreme Court decision sets forth a good example of how not to use out-of-state authority when writing an appellate brief on a question of first impression. Johnson v. Johnson, 2014 UT 21, 330 P.3d 704.

     In a divorce case, the court issued an order dividing the husband's military pension, but the wife never obtained the qualified order necessary to have the military pay a portion of the pension directly to her. Some years after the divorce, she petitioned for such an order. The husband argued that she had waited too long, and that her request was barred by laches. The trial court prospectively granted the wife's request, and the husband appealed.

     There was no Utah authority directly on point, so the husband cited two New York cases. The court was not unwilling to look outside Utah, but it criticized the manner in which the New York cases had been discussed, and ultimately dismissed the laches issue on grounds of insufficient briefing.

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Topics: family law, Brett R. Turner, The Lawletter Vol 40, No 4, using out-of-state cases in appellate brief, appellate procedure, relate out-of-state law to general principles

FAMILY LAW: Laws of State of Domicile Govern Divorce of Couple Married in Another State

Posted by Sandra L. Thomas on Mon, May 11, 2015 @ 16:05 PM

The Lawletter Vol 40 No 3

Sandra Thomas, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     In the first decision in the nation to address the issue, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has held that an Alabama trial court was under no obligation to enforce the covenant-marriage contract entered into between the parties at the time of their marriage in Louisiana where the parties subsequently moved to Alabama and sought a divorce in the Alabama court. Blackburn v. Blackburn, No. 2131043, 2015 WL 1608431 (Ala. Civ. App. Apr. 10, 2015) (not yet released for publication).

     In January 2013, Mr. Blackburn filed a complaint for divorce in an Alabama trial court, alleging as grounds incompatibility of temperament and an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Several days later, Mrs. Blackburn filed an answer and counterclaim also seeking a divorce and also alleging incompatibility of temperament, and further alleging that the husband had committed acts of domestic violence.

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Topics: family law, domiciliary state, subject-matter jurisdiction

FAMILY LAW: Spousal Support in No-Guideline States

Posted by Brett R. Turner on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 @ 08:03 AM

Brett Turner, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

     No field of family law is as diverse or controversial as that of support payments made by one spouse for the support of the other after a marriage has ended in divorce. The law in this area is so divided that the states cannot even agree on the name of the payment. Some states use the traditional name, "alimony." Other states follow the lead of the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act and call the payment "maintenance." Still other states call the payment "spousal support."

     Disagreement over the label is matched by disagreement over the purpose of the payments. Most states recognize several different types of spousal support. Traditional support is awarded after a long-term marriage so that the less wealthy spouse does not suffer a drop in living standard. Rehabilitative support is awarded when it will help the less wealthy spouse to develop a higher earning capacity. It differs subtly from time-limited support, which is awarded when the marriage was not long enough to justify a traditional support award. Reimbursement support is awarded when one spouse made contributions during the marriage to the other's earning capacity, such as by supporting a spouse through graduate or professional school. Some states even recognize transitional support to bridge the gaps between other forms of support.

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Topics: family law, spousal support, no-guidelines states

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