Monday, December 4, 2006
My students are sometimes frustrated by the large degree of deference given to trial courts in custody and visitation matters, leading to an attitude that "no case is predictible." To counter this perception, I like to share cases in which discretion is limited by the facts alone. The North Dakota Supreme Court provides one such case in which it holds that a trial court erred in determining that no change in circumstances justified modification of a visitation schedule. Mother and Father had lived in the same town when visitation was established, but Mother and the child moved to a distant town thereafter. That same month Father was diagnosed with a serious disease requiring a twelve-month-long course of weekly treatments. He received treatments on Fridays, resulting in his exhaustion. He requested that Wife be required to assist in getting the child to him for his twice-a-month visitation, as driving to her home to pick up his child became physically difficult as well as more expensive and time-consuming.
On this record, the court concluded that "the change in circumstances since the original decree is material as a matter of law."
Ibach v. Zacher, 2006 ND 244 (November 28, 2006)
Opinion on web (last visited December 4, 2006 bgf)
Friday, October 20, 2006
Case Law Development: Massachusetts Court of Appeals Reaffirms Use of "Real Advantage" test in Relocation Cases
The Massachusetts court of appeals reversed a probate court's denial of a custodial mother's petition to relocate, finding that the court had given undue weight to the effect of the move of father's visistation and reaffirming that the "real advantage" test remains the standard by which relocations by custodial parents are to be measured.
The 'real advantage' test is grounded on the 'realization that after a divorce a child's subsequent relationship with both parents can never be the same as before the divorce . . . [and] that the child's quality of life and style of life are provided by the custodial parent.' . . . Although the best interests of the children always remain the paramount concern, '[b]ecause the best interests of a child are so interwoven with the well-being of the custodial parent, the determination of the child's best interest requires that the interests of the custodial parent be taken into account.
Here, the court concluded that
On its face, the mother's case would seem to present a relatively straightforward application of real advantage principles: her marriage had dissolved; she had lost her three-day per week job with Fleet Bank that paid $ 70,000 plus bonuses; the house in which she and the child had lived in Newton was not available after July, 2005, on a month-to-month basis; and she could not afford to purchase a home in Newton that would enable the child to stay in the local school. The move to Old Saybrook offered her free lodging in an upscale community, the companionship of family, and readily available child-care assistance from family while she looked for and established herself in a suitable job. As of the time of trial, she had accepted a three-day per week job as a mortgage originator at a Sovereign Bank in Old Saybrook. These circumstances establish a "good reason" for the move to Connecticut, and the probate judge's determination to the contrary is clearly erroneous.... the findings and rulings concerning removal concentrated almost exclusively on the father's relationship with the child, and in particular the desirability of frequent, short visits with the father. While those findings cannot be considered erroneous, disruption in visitation with the noncustodial parent cannot be controlling or no removal petition would ever be allowed. It is clear from the probate judge's findings that undue -- in effect, dispositive -- weight was given to this criterion.
A dissenting judge would have given greater deference to the trial judge.
Cartledge v. Evans, 2006 Mass. App. LEXIS 1069 (October 19, 2006)
Opinion on web (last visited October 20, 2006 bgf)
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
"Kim Basinger will go to trial after pleading not guilty Wednesday to disregarding court orders concerning ex-husband Alec Baldwin's visitation rights with their daughter, a court official ordered. Court papers filed by Baldwin allege that in 2005, the Academy Award-winning actress ignored court orders by not letting her ex-husband know she would be out of town working so that he could take care of their 10-year-old daughter until she returned. On one occasion, Basinger also did not tell Baldwin their daughter, Ireland, was injured and required medical help, according to the court papers. The girl's injuries were not specified. Basinger's attorney entered the pleas on her behalf to 12 misdemeanor counts of criminal contempt. The Academy Award-winning actress faces up to 60 days in jail and a $12,000 fine if convicted of all counts." AP, CNN.com. Link to Article (last visited 10-9-06 NVS)
Thursday, October 5, 2006
"Judges have been settling family disputes since King Solomon's proposed "solution" of splitting a baby in half in a custody battle. That Bible story has some parallels to how courts today grapple with demands of grandparents to visit their grandchildren over parental objections. Many thought the U.S. Supreme Court had essentially settled this issue in 2000 when it ruled that Tommie Granville, a mother in Washington state, could limit to once a month her two girls' contact with their paternal grandparents after the girls' father had committed suicide. But the issue is flaring anew. The highest courts of Pennsylvania, Utah and Colorado recently ordered grandparent visits in disputes strikingly similar to the 2000 case. The cases are heartbreaking because all involved a child who had lost a parent, and the surviving parent - whose fitness wasn't in question - wanted to limit visits." USA Today.com, Yahoo News Link to Article (last visited 10-5-06 NVS)
"Though it is undoubtedly true that the rights of the parents in a grandparent visitation dispute are important, it is also true that they are not the only people whose rights and desires should be considered. Most states have some version of a statute that gives grandparents the right to seek visitation with their grandchildren, and this right should not be overlooked. There are many reasons that parents and grandparents find themselves unable to agree on visitation, and those reasons can have more to do with issues in the relationship between the grandparents and their adult children than with the quality of the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. It is naive to assume that parents who are not abusive or neglectful will always make the right decision where their children are concerned." By Traci Truly, USA Today.com Yahoo News Link to Article (last visited 10-05-06 NVS)
Monday, August 28, 2006
The Utah Supreme Court has upheld its grandparent visitation statute. The statute does not require a showing of harm to the child, but does limit the circumstances in which grandparents may bring an action for visitation. Those situations include "where a family has been divided by some turn of fate--death, divorce, loss of custody, a missing person, or a declaration that a parent is unfit or incompetent."
The statute recognizes that when a family unit has been touched by these events a situation may arise where the child's interests differ from those of the parent. This is particularly true where the direct family line between grandparents and grandchildren has been severed, leaving the "in-law" relationship as the only remaining adult connection. Id. § 30-5-2(2)(c), (e), (f). Recognizing the potential for conflict in the relationship between the parent and the "in-law" and the resulting potential for interference with the grandparent-grandchild relationship, the statute provides an avenue for grandparents and grandchildren to maintain their relationship"
Court noted that the statute was not especially clear and urged the legislature to clarify the statute.
In re Estate of Thurgood, 2006 UT 46; 2006 Utah LEXIS 138 (Utah Supreme Court
August 25, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited August 27, 2006 bgf)
Friday, August 25, 2006
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has issued a thorough analysis of the constitutionality of its grandparent visitation statute, upholding the statute. The opinion proivdes a catalogue of the state court opinions regarding whether a finding of harm to the child is necessary before grandparents can be given visitation, concluding that it would join those states that do not require such a finding. A concurring opinion suggests that the time has come to analyze these cases from a child's rights perspective, providing a description of the historical development of children's rights and how that analysis should be applied in these cases. One justice dissenting, arguing that a showing of harm to the child should be required.
All in all, a fabulous case for summarizing the current state of the law of grandparent visitation and the underlying policies driving the different approaches.
Friday, August 11, 2006
Case Law Development: Third-Party Visitation in Washington State Survives Even Without Statutory Basis
The Washington Court of Appeals determines that, while Washington statutes no longer provide third-party visitation rights, right awarded under the statute prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Troxel could still be enforced. In this case, step-father was awarded visitation with his stepdaughter in a 1998 parenting plan incorporated into a divorce decree. When he sought to enforce those rights, the trial court ruled that he had no rights given a 2005 Washington Supreme Court opinion declaring that the third-party visitation statute was frought with too many constitutional problems to be enforceable without legislative action to correct its constitutional defects. (In re Parentage of C.A.M.A., 154 Wn.2d 52, 109 P.3d 405 (2005)). The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that a retroactive application of the C.A.M.A. case was improper given the the US Supreme Court's had held that the statute was not per se unconstitutional. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S. Ct. 2054, 147 L. Ed. 2d 49 (2000). Moreover, the court held that even if no third-party visitation rights existed under Washington statutes, equity principles provided an alternative ground for enforcing the stepfather's visitation rights. "It is well recognized, both in Washington and nationally, that child custody and visitation orders may be established by reliance on courts' equity powers and the common law." The court referenced a recent Washington Supreme Court statement that a child's "fundamental right to a stable and healthy family life . . . include[s] independently valued protections of a child's relationship with siblings and with adults other than his or her biological parents with whom the child has formed a critical bond." In re Custody of Shields, 157 Wn.2d 126, 2006 Wash. LEXIS 495, (Wash. June 2006) (Bridge, J., concurring).
Anderson v Anderson, 2006 Wash. App. LEXIS 1691 (Div 2 August 8, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited August 10, 2006 bgf)
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Case Law Development: New Jersey Supreme Court Decides Not to Decide Constitutional Right of Siblings to Visit One Another
The New Jersey Supreme Court vacated its grant of certification in a case in which the Law Guardian had asked the court to decide "whether the Division of Youth & Family Services or the courts have an affirmative duty to ensure that contact between siblings is maintained, even in a post-adoption context, when the siblings are in a separate home." While the court noted that "we cannot underestimate the value of nurturing and sustaining sibling relationships" it concluded that there was no case or controversy before them as the child in question was afforded ample and regular visitation with siblings who had been adopted into a different home. Rather, the court suggested that the topic was one the legislature should address:
The competing public policy concerns presented by the parties and amici curiae would benefit from legislative review. The state legislatures that have addressed the issue of sibling visitation after adoption have taken a variety of approaches. Thus, our Legislature may have an interest in addressing the issues discussed here. The Court expresses no opinion on the merits of the issues raised by the parties and amici curiae.
New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. S.S., 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1083 (July 18, 2006)
Opinion on Web
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Case Law Development: Police Interference with Parent's Visitation Rights Did Not Violate Parent's Substantive or Procedural Due Process
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examines the constitutional interests at stake when police act in visitation disputes. The case involved an ongoing custody and visitation dispute. Father had sole custody of the son and Mother had visitation rights. Police were regularly called upon to intervene when the parent's transferred the child. In this case, Father came to pick up son from Mother and Mother insisted that she had a week of additional visitation time. Father then called the police to assist in retrieving his son. Mother alleged that Father knew the police officer that was called and that he and the officer had conspired to deprive her of visitation. The district court found sufficient factual questions regarding this alleged conspiracy to deny defendant's motion for summary judgment.
In reversing the district court, the court of appeals acknowledged that Mother had a liberty interest in her visitation with her son, but held that the officer's acted reasonably in interpreting the custody order and the deprivation of one week of visitation did not rise to the level of a federal constitutional violation.
The court noted the prudential considerations supporting this holding: "In so holding, we are mindful that this case arises in the intersection of several fields of law where federal courts have shown the greatest hesitation in creating new federal mandates. We will not disregard this justifiable caution lightly. Substantive due process vindicates those interests which are fundamental and, contrary to [Mother’s] theory, may not to be used as a font of tort law to be superimposed upon whatever systems may already be administered by the States.... If every custody dispute, including ones only concerning a weekend or even an hour of visitation, can give rise to a federal claim necessitating federal interpretation of a state custody order, federal courts could rapidly become de facto family courts. Such a result is not permitted by Supreme Court jurisprudence."
The court noted the fact-specific nature of its holding: "We need not hold that visitation rights will never give rise to a substantive due process claim.... We need not reach the question whether interference with a lengthy visitation period or repeated interference with shorter periods may give rise to a cognizable substantive due process claim. We need not decide here whether interference that affects the existence of visitation rights altogether, rather than discrete instances of visitation, might give rise to a viable claim. Nor need we reach the question whether custodial parents may bring suit. "
As to the procedural due process analysis, the court concluded that no pre-deprivation hearing was required in enforcing this visitation order, as Mother could have sought to have the order clarified at an earlier time and the state's interest in promptly enforcing these orders was significant.
Justice Silverman wrote separately to note his disagreement over the court's statement that “'a single instance of visitation, of a single week in duration', is not a fundamental right.... Even though a non-custodial parent may have visitation “only” every other weekend, to some parents that weekend is the moon and the stars." However, under the circumstances of this case, given the reasonableness of the police officer's actions, he agreed that the district court should be reversed.
Brittain v. Hansen, 9th Circuit No. 03-57012 (June 22, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited June 26, 2006 bgf)
Monday, June 12, 2006
"Alec Baldwin may have requested last year that his ex-wife,Kim Basinger, be forced to undergo psychological evaluation, but a Los Angeles court has instead ordered the 48-year-old actor to consult a therapist before he is allowed extra visits with his 10-year-old daughter, Ireland, L.A. City News Service reported Friday." By Natalie Finn, Yahoo News Link to Article (last visited 6-11-06 NVS)
Friday, June 9, 2006
The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of its grandparent visitation statutes and affirmed a trial court's award of visitation to the children's paternal grandparents. Under the Nebraska grandparent visitation statutes, grandparents can seek visitation only under certain circumstances: if the grandchild’s parent or parents are deceased, divorced or in the process of seeking a divorce, or have never been married but paternity has been legally established. Moreover, a court is without authority to order grandparent visitation unless a petitioning grandparent can prove by clear and convincing evidence that (1) there is, or has been, a significant beneficial relationship between the grandparent and the child; (2) it is in the best interests of the child that such relationship continue; and (3) such visitation will not adversely interfere with the parent-child relationship. The court concluded that these statutes are narrowly drawn and explicitly protect parental rights while taking the child’s best interests into consideration so as to withstand strict scrutiny.
Hamit v. Hamit, 271 Neb. 659 (June 2, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited June 6, 2006 bgf)
Case Law Development: Removing Child from Person With Whom Child Has Strong Attachment but No Legal Rights is Not Abuse
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
An eleven-year-old daughter filed an action to modify her parent's summer parenting time schedule to enable her to participate in certain sports and band programs. Her attorney was employed by her mother and stepfather. The Kansas Court of Appeals noted that parenting time and visitation rights extend only to parents, grandparents, and stepparents and that any expansion of the categories of individuals who have standing to seek visitation rights should originate with the legislature. Thus, the court held that a minor child has no legal standing to file a motion to modify visitation or parenting time in a divorce case.
In re Marriage of Osborn, 2006 Kan. App. LEXIS 522 (June 2, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited June 6, 2006 bgf)
Friday, June 2, 2006
Here's an interesting juxtaposition of legal rights that almost slipped by me. The Maine Supreme Court held that a father who continued to show up for visitation with his daughter, sent her notes, called her, and attended her school events was acting consistent with his court-ordered rights of visitation and shared parental rights and a trial court erred in entering a protective order on his daughter's behalf on the basis of harassment. Daughter feared her father and did not want contact with him, but that was insufficient to prove harassment when father had a legal right to attempt to maintain the relationship. Wiley v. Wiley, 2006 ME 45 (May 1, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited June 4, 2006)
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Kentucky Court of Appeals Rules 2-1 that Inmate Awaiting Trial on Triple Murder Charges May Visit Children
In an unpublished opinion, the Kentucky Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling restored child-visitation rights to a Lexington, Kentucky man in prison for offering to kill a man and awaiting trial on triple murder charges. It said that the trial judge made several procedural errors when he denied the inmate visitation to his three children, ages 9, 12 and 14.
The court said that the trial judge had improperly placed the burden of showing harm to the children on the inmate noncustodial parent, contrary to Kentucky law. It observed that “his status as an inmate in a penal institution alone does not make visitation with his child inappropriate.” It also said that there was “not a finding in the record that visitation would seriously endanger the child’s physical, mental, moral, or emotional health, and there is no evidence in the record to support such a finding.” Other errors committed by the trial judge included the use of letters and affidavits without placing them into evidence or allowing the inmate an opportunity to cross examine the authors. The Appeals’ court then ordered that the inmate be granted visitation. The dissent would have remanded the case for trial because “the possibility exists that it could be properly shown by clear and convincing evidence that visitation with the appellant in the prison setting, given his history of violence, brutality and lawlessness, could seriously endanger the mental, moral or emotional health of these children.” News Source. Brandon Ortiz, Herald-Leader, Kentucky.com. For the complete news story, please click here (last visited May 10, 2006, reo). A copy of the unpublished slip opinion, Meese v. Meade, can be obtained in PDF format by clicking here (last visited May 10, 2006, reo). A copy of the opinion may be downloaded in PDF format by clicking here.pdf
Friday, April 14, 2006
The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed an award of grandparent visitation that allowed grandmother four weeks of visitation during the summer and visitation whenever grandmother was in town if she gave seven days notice. While reaffirming that the grandparent visitation statute was constitutional in allowing grandparent visitation, the court reversed the visitation orderd in this case as "the visitation awarded here is not a minimal intrusion on the family relationship." To be constitutional, the court held, the visitation order "must still be only occasional, temporary visitation that is not commensurate with parental visitation and is only a minimal intrusion on the family relationship."
Bryan v. Garrison, 2006 Mo. App. LEXIS 430 (April 11, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited April 13, 2006 bgf)
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
The Texas Supreme Court reversed a trial court's grant of generous grandparent visitation in a case in which Mother had objected to her mother-in-law's visitation with the child after Father had died. The trial court had rejected Mother's claims that the statute was unconstitutional and awarded her mother-in-law "possession" of the child for one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, four days during Christmas vacation, and alternating Thanksgiving weekends, as well as access through weekly telephone calls. The Texas Supreme Court found the situation in this case to be "virtually the same" as the facts of Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000). "In this case (as in Troxel) there was no evidence that the child's mother was unfit, no evidence that the boy's health or emotional well-being would suffer if the court deferred to her decisions, and no evidence that she intended to exclude [Grandmother's] access completely."
In re Mays-Hooper, 2006 Tex. LEXIS 256 (April 7, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited April 11, 2006 bgf)
The Florida Court of Appeals reversed a trial court's orders that a guardian ad litem, appointed for the parties' minor son in a dissolution proceeding, had the authority to make all decisions regarding visitation of the child with his parents. The court emphasized the statutory language requiring that courts make these decisions and noted that courts may not delegate their statutory authority to determine visitation to guardian ad litems, attorneys, or experts.
Shugar v. Shugar, 2006 Fla. App. LEXIS 4856 (April 5, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited April 10, 2006 bgf)
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a trial court's dismissal of visitation claims in a suit under the International Child Abduction Remedies Act. The court held that the Act provides remedies only for violations of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Since the treaty does not address visitation or access issues outside the context of wrongful removal or retention of a child, the federal courts have no jurisdiction under the act. Rather, parties seeking to enforce visitation right should file suit in state courts.
A dissenting judge would have interpreted the act to cover these issues.
Cantor v. Cohen, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 6915 (4th Cir. March 21, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited March 26, 2006 bgf)
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
An Iowa father’s rights group has submitted a bill to the Iowa legislature that if adopted would require that state’s courts to presume that joint physical care is in the best interest of a child unless physical or emotional harm would come to the child because of the new arrangement. Opponents of the proposal, including the Iowa Bar Association and the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, allege that the bill, if passed, would make women and children more susceptible to violence. They also allege that the bill is unnecessary because the existing law works. Finally, they claim that the child's best interests a child can only be considered on an individual case basis instead of imposing a one-size fits all standard. Source: Jens Manuel Krogstad, WCFCourrier.com. Please click here for the story (last visited March 22, 2006 (reo).