Articles Posted in Family Law

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Father Andrew Bratton appealed the denial of his motion to modify legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities in the parties’ son D.B. Father argued that the court improperly treated the child’s maternal grandfather as a “fictive parent” and gave him too much weight in evaluating the statutory best-interests factors. Notwithstanding a court order, mother Laura Holland (Bratton) did not turn D.B. over to father. In an October 2016 ruling, the court found that mother failed to abide by its orders or purge herself of prior contempts. It issued a separate arrest warrant requiring that mother be brought before the court as soon as she was found. A North Carolina court subsequently issued an order for expedited enforcement of a foreign child custody order, and mother finally turned D.B. over to father on October 18, 2016. In the ensuing months, court records revealed mother treated father’s contact with D.B. as a nuisance, which she would occasionally grant if father begged enough and if it was convenient. When D.B. was with his father, mother sent messages intimating that his home was with her and suggesting that she was trying to “rescue him” from Vermont. The court found little positive to say about mother’s parenting other than that she loved D.B. Grandfather, however, provided mother with a job and a nice house in a nice neighborhood. The court found that grandfather was “really D.B.’s fictive parent in North Carolina.” D.B. enjoyed a higher standard of living, better housing, and was engaged in more activities in North Carolina than in Vermont. The court determined that mother engaged in a calculating and knowing attempt to thwart visitation and that D.B. was harmed by her actions. Nonetheless, it concluded that the statutory best-interests factors narrowly favored mother having physical custody of D.B. and “only due to [grandfather]’s presence in D.B.’s life.” While the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's finding that changed circumstances exist, it reversed and remanded its best-interests analysis for additional proceedings: "[t]he court’s belief that mother’s behavior would change was a linchpin of its decision. Because this belief is unsupported by any findings or evidence, and because the court erred in its evaluation of the statutory best-interests factors." View "Bratton v. Holland (Bratton)" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Father Andrew Bratton appealed the denial of his motion to modify legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities in the parties’ son D.B. Father argued that the court improperly treated the child’s maternal grandfather as a “fictive parent” and gave him too much weight in evaluating the statutory best-interests factors. Notwithstanding a court order, mother Laura Holland (Bratton) did not turn D.B. over to father. In an October 2016 ruling, the court found that mother failed to abide by its orders or purge herself of prior contempts. It issued a separate arrest warrant requiring that mother be brought before the court as soon as she was found. A North Carolina court subsequently issued an order for expedited enforcement of a foreign child custody order, and mother finally turned D.B. over to father on October 18, 2016. In the ensuing months, court records revealed mother treated father’s contact with D.B. as a nuisance, which she would occasionally grant if father begged enough and if it was convenient. When D.B. was with his father, mother sent messages intimating that his home was with her and suggesting that she was trying to “rescue him” from Vermont. The court found little positive to say about mother’s parenting other than that she loved D.B. Grandfather, however, provided mother with a job and a nice house in a nice neighborhood. The court found that grandfather was “really D.B.’s fictive parent in North Carolina.” D.B. enjoyed a higher standard of living, better housing, and was engaged in more activities in North Carolina than in Vermont. The court determined that mother engaged in a calculating and knowing attempt to thwart visitation and that D.B. was harmed by her actions. Nonetheless, it concluded that the statutory best-interests factors narrowly favored mother having physical custody of D.B. and “only due to [grandfather]’s presence in D.B.’s life.” While the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's finding that changed circumstances exist, it reversed and remanded its best-interests analysis for additional proceedings: "[t]he court’s belief that mother’s behavior would change was a linchpin of its decision. Because this belief is unsupported by any findings or evidence, and because the court erred in its evaluation of the statutory best-interests factors." View "Bratton v. Holland (Bratton)" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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In consolidated appeals, mother, the noncustodial parent, challenged three successive orders of the family division that restricted and then temporarily suspended her contact with the parties’ sixteen-year-old son. After review of the specific facts of this case, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the court’s restrictions on mother’s contact with the child, but reversed its limitations on her access to the child’s records and communications with school and medical personnel. The Court remanded that issue for further findings and direct the family court to review its order suspending contact within sixty days. View "Weaver v. Weaver" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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At issue for the Vermont Supreme Court’s review was a determination of whether the evidence and findings supported the trial court’s conclusion that a child with significant mental-health issues was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) because she was “without or beyond the control of . . . her parent, guardian, or custodian,” or “CHINS-C.” After review, the Court concluded that a child with significant mental illness who cannot be safely cared for by a parent in the home is not CHINS-C if the parent has effectively exercised parental authority to ensure that the child’s care is properly managed in another setting. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s merits determination that M.L. was a child in need of supervision. View "In re M.L." on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review concerned whether a trial court could modify parental rights and responsibilities when one parent was relocating if that issue was not expressly raised by motion and the sole motion before the court was the relocating parent’s motion to modify parent-child contact. Katie Churchill (mother) appealed a trial court decision that transferred the right to choose the children’s residence and school from her to Landon Bonk (father) and that reconfigured the parties’ existing contact schedule, reducing her time with her children from approximately 65% to 20%. The Supreme Court held the mother’s motion to modify parent-child contact and father’s motion to dismiss in response did not raise the issue of the parties’ parental rights and responsibilities. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion by issuing an order modifying parental rights and responsibilities. Furthermore, the Court held that the trial court proceedings supported finding a sufficient change of circumstances to grant mother’s motion to modify parent-child contact. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded for the trial court to set a new parent-child contact schedule. View "Bonk v. Bonk" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Husband was raised in India and attended high school and college there. In 2009, he moved to Montreal, Canada to pursue a master’s degree in food science and engineering from McGill University. In 2011, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. (employer) hired husband to be a research scientist, and brought him to Vermont on a temporary H-1B employment visa. In 2012, husband met wife, who was then residing in India. The couple married in India a short time later. Soon after the wedding, wife moved with husband to Vermont on a 4-H spouse-dependent visa; she has lived in Vermont ever since. In December 2015, while Wife was on a trip to India, husband filed for a no-fault divorce in Vermont. Upon her return, in March 2016, wife filed a complaint against husband for separate statutory spousal maintenance. The two proceedings were consolidated. Wife appealed the denial of her motion to dismiss husband’s divorce complaint under the theory that husband’s nonimmigration visa status prevented him from being a Vermont domiciliary. In addition, wife argues that husband’s complaint should be dismissed because Indian law governed the dissolution of the parties’ marriage. The Vermont Supreme Court held that husband’s nonimmigration visa status is not an impediment to his establishing Vermont residency for purposes of filing a divorce action, and that the trial court properly denied wife’s motion to dismiss. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Maghu v. Singh" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Vermont Supreme Court's review centered on whether a court could terminate parents’ parental rights following a hearing in which, over an objection, the State was represented by the same lawyer who had previously represented the children in the same matter. Mother and father separately appealed the court’s order terminating their parental rights with respect to three of their daughters. The Supreme Court did not address many of their challenges to the trial court’s findings and conclusions because the Court concluded a conflict of interest by the State’s counsel compromised the proceedings. Accordingly, the case was reversed and remanded for a new hearing. View "In re L.H., L.H. and L.H., Juveniles" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether an individual who is not biologically related to a child, has not legally adopted the child, and was not married to the child’s legal parent, may be the child’s legal parent. The family division dismissed plaintiff’s petition to establish parentage of the two children legally adopted by her domestic partner, concluding that the definition of “parent” in the Vermont parentage statute did not extend to those who were not connected by biology or adoption to the child, or by marriage or civil union to the child’s legally recognized parent. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that plaintiff’s allegations were sufficient to withstand dismissal with respect to the younger child, M.P., insofar as plaintiff has alleged that she and defendant mutually agreed to bring M.P. into their family and to raise her together as equal co-parents, and have in fact done so for many years. The Court affirmed dismissal as to G.P, and reversed as to M.P, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Sinnott v. Peck" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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Wife challenged the superior court’s property distribution, including its award of property in lieu of spousal maintenance, in this divorce action. The parties began a romantic relationship in 2002 when they were both married and had children. Their respective divorces were finalized in the spring of 2004, and they began living together, marrying in June 2007 and separating in February 2014. No children were born of the marriage, which was the second for both parties. Wife brought into the marriage assets totaling approximately $1.8 million, most of which she obtained through her divorce from her first husband. Husband brought into the marriage between $4.4 and $5.4 million in assets, which he accumulated through his work in the financial services industry from 1985 to 2000. To preserve wife’s spousal support from her first husband, the parties initially kept their finances separate. They did not open their first joint bank account until early 2008, six months after they married. The superior court issued its divorce order in October 2016, concluding it would be inequitable to simply apportion the marital estate by the percentage each party brought into the marriage, even though the marriage was relatively brief. The court concluded that it was appropriate and preferable to award wife additional property in lieu of maintenance, considering “the substantial size of the marital estate, the acrimonious state of the parties’ relationship, and the brief duration of the marriage.” On appeal, wife argued that: (1) the court erred in failing to consider the length of the parties’ premarital relationship and cohabitation in establishing its property distribution and maintenance award; (2) by awarding her an undifferentiated lump-sum payment that was partially property settlement and partially a maintenance award, the superior court failed to explain how its division of marital assets was equitable and whether the unspecified maintenance award would enable her to continue the lifestyle established during the marriage; and (3) the court made multiple errors in valuing the marital estate. Given the facts and circumstances of this case, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded the superior court acted within its discretion in not including the parties’ premarital relationship and cohabitation period in calculating the duration of the marriage as a factor in determining an equitable property distribution and just maintenance award. The Court was compelled, however, to remand the property distribution to the superior court for further consideration and findings with respect to what property was to be included in the marital estate and how it was supposed to be allocated: “the court at times seemed to suggest that it considered all of husband’s deferred compensation earned in 2013 and 2014 to be a marital asset subject to distribution and that it was awarding all the remaining unvested deferred compensation to husband. On the other hand, the court repeatedly stated that any of the deferred compensation acquired after the date of the parties’ separation is not a marital asset subject to distribution between the parties.” View "Forstmann MacKenzie v. MacKenzie" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law

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This case began in 2014 when the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) filed a petition alleging that B.K. and L.K., then six and seven years old respectively, were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS). In September 2014, the parents stipulated to a CHINS adjudication, which was adopted by the family court. In the stipulation, the parents admitted that over the previous four years they had not engaged in recommended services for domestic violence and substance abuse, and that the children had suffered severe trauma due to witnessing violence in the home and had frequent unexcused absences and tardiness from school. ness from school during the 2013-14 school year. The court approved a case plan with concurrent goals of reunification with mother and father or adoption, with interim custody with DCF. The case plan called for father to participate in parenting classes and domestic violence treatment, and for mother to participate in substance abuse and mental health treatment. Father made significant progress toward the case plan goals. Mother, by contrast, attended visits and therapy inconsistently, and was incarcerated for a period in 2015. Since December 2015, mother has had no contact with the children. In April 2016, DCF filed petitions to terminate the parental rights of both parents. However, the court found that father played a constructive role in the children’s lives and that it would not be in their best interests to lose father as they had mother. By 2017, the trial court issued its decision terminating father's parental rights, finding permanency should have been given greater weight in its analysis, and that the best interests of the children were ultimately served by termination. On appeal, father argues that the court’s decision lacked a rational basis and that it erred by terminating his parental rights based on findings that were not supported by clear and convincing evidence. DCF argued the trial court did not base its decision on any new findings of fact, but merely reconsidered the law. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed, finding the trial court made clear that it learned two new facts at the hearing upon which it relied in reweighing the best-interest factors. The original decision did not include these findings, which were based upon statements made by the attorneys and the foster mother at the hearing. The court based its decision to terminate father’s parental rights at least in part on these new facts. For that reason, the Court could not hold that error to be harmless. View "In re B.K. and L.K." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law