Justia Vermont Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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Mother appealed a family division disposition order transferring custody of her six-year-old daughter A.M. to father, who lived in Colorado. Specifically, mother argued the court erred in directing mother to pay for 75% of the costs of transporting the child back and forth to Vermont for contact with mother. Specifically, she argued the court lacked authority in this CHINS proceeding to make an order allocating travel costs, particularly since neither party requested such an order, there was no warning to the parties, and no evidence was taken regarding their relative financial conditions. The State did not disagree and joined in mother’s arguments on this issue. Because the Vermont Supreme Court found no statutory authority for the court to make a financial award of this type in a CHINS proceeding, it reversed the family court’s final disposition order insofar as it purported to allocate 75% of the costs of transporting A.M. for visits to mother. The matter was remanded for that court to issue new disposition and parental rights and responsibilities orders without that provision. View "In re A.M." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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When M.P. was born, mother was married to husband. At the time of M.P.’s birth, the family lived in Alabama. In the spring of 2016, the family moved to Vermont. Mother was subsequently arrested on an Alabama warrant and extradited to Alabama. M.P. and her brothers remained in Vermont in husband’s care. In August 2016, husband requested assistance in caring for the children, and M.P. and her brothers were placed in DCF custody. The State filed a petition alleging M.P. and her brothers were CHINS. Mother and father appealed the eventual termination of their parental rights to M.P. On appeal, father argued: (1) Vermont lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate M.P. as a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) and to terminate his parental rights under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA); (2) the family court erred in finding that his progress had stagnated and that termination was in M.P.’s best interests; and (3) the evidence did not support the court’s finding that the Department for Children and Families (DCF) made reasonable efforts to finalize the permanency plan. Mother joins father’s arguments and argues that the CHINS order is invalid because mother did not join the stipulation on which the order was based. The Vermont Supreme Court rejected the parents’ jurisdictional challenges to the CHINS merits order and reversed termination of father’s parental rights. The Court concluded husband had authority as the children’s custodian and presumed legal parent to enter the stipulation upon which the CHINS decision was based. Further, the family court had temporary emergency jurisdiction over the CHINS petition under the UCCJEA and that jurisdiction became permanent when no case concerning M.P. was filed or commenced in another state. The Court affirmed termination of mother’s parental rights, but that the family court erred in finding that father’s progress had stagnated. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court held there was a change of circumstances warranting modification of the case plan in this case given the identification of father, who had previously been involved as M.P.’s caretaker, as M.P.’s legal parent. View "In re M.P." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Juvenile G.B., born in June 2017, appealed a trial court’s order denying his petition to terminate mother’s parental rights and directing the Department for Children and Families (DCF) to prepare a new disposition plan for mother. The Vermont Supreme Court dismissed the appeal for lack of a final judgment. In October 2017, the court held a merits hearing in G.B.’s case. The court found that G.B. was a child in need of care or supervision (CHINS) based on parents’ mental-health issues, substance abuse, failure to consistently engage in parent-child contact, and father’s criminal history. Father did not appear at the hearing; mother was briefly present. The court considered the best-interests factors as to each parent, then granted the petition to terminate father’s rights, concluding that he had not developed a relationship with G.B. and would not be able to assume parental duties within a reasonable period of time. As to mother, the court acknowledged that mother’s relapse resulted in her not being able to play a constructive role in G.B.’s life for seventeen months. The court concluded, however, that mother was ready, willing, and able to resume a constructive role in G.B.’s life and that she “should be given the opportunity over the next six months to reunify with G.B.” Therefore, the court denied the petition to terminate mother’s rights. The court explained that the case was “still at disposition” and directed DCF to prepare a new disposition plan in light of the court’s decision. G.B. appealed the denial to terminate mother’s rights. To the Supreme Court, G.B. argued the trial court failed to view the question of whether mother would be able to parent within a reasonable period of time from the perspective of the juvenile. The Supreme Court determined the order G.B. sought to appeal in this case—the denial of the petition to terminate mother’s rights—was not final because it was neither a final judgment nor a disposition order. The order denying termination of mother’s rights did not finally resolve the status of mother’s parental rights and therefore was not a final judgment. View "In re G.B., Juvenile" on Justia Law

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Mother and her four minor children were undocumented immigrants from Angola living in Vermont. Mother is married to the children’s father. At one time, father indicated that he would join the family in North America but he had not. Mother alleged that father had not contacted or supported the family since 2013. She also testified that there was no place for the children in Angola. In February 2018, mother sought relief under 15 V.S.A. 291, seeking award of sole legal and physical parental-rights-and-responsibilities (PRR) based on father’s abandonment of the family. Mother also asked the court to make special findings that would allow the children to apply for “special immigrant juvenile” (SIJ) status with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Father was served by publication in Angola. The trial court concluded that it was in the children’s best interests that mother have sole PRR, both legal and physical. It did not order any parent-child contact with father. The court denied mother’s request for SIJ findings, concluding it lacked authority to make SIJ findings because they were not necessary to its parental-rights-and-responsibilities (PRR) decision. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that given the primacy of a child’s best interests in cases like this and the court’s broad discretion in determining those interests, the trial court did have the authority to make such findings. “It should make such findings when it is in a child’s best interests to do so and where such findings are supported by the evidence.” The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision to allow it to engage in this analysis. Because one of the juveniles would turn eighteen on July 13, 2019, the Supreme Court issued the mandate immediately and directed the court to issue its findings forthwith. View "Kitoko v. Salomao" on Justia Law

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Husband Theodore Weitz appealed an order denying his motion to reopen the case after wife Sheryl's notice of voluntary dismissal, filed pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(i). On appeal, he argued: (1) Rule 41(a)(1)(i) “is in direct conflict” with the Vermont Rules for Family Proceedings and was therefore inapplicable to the Family Division; (2) Rule 41(a)(1)(i) was not intended to apply in cases where significant resources have been expended; and (3) that it was inequitable to apply Rule 41(a)(1)(i) in this case due to alleged bad faith and bad acts by wife. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Weitz v. Weitz" on Justia Law

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The parties divorced in November 2004. As part of the divorce, the court ordered wife to transfer funds from her retirement account to husband. In 2006, the court approved a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to effectuate the transfer of those funds. The order was never “qualified,” however, because there was no money in the retirement account that wife identified. The court approved another proposed QDRO in February 2007 specifying a different retirement account identified by wife. In August 2017, husband filed a motion to enforce, asserting that the owed funds were never transferred to him and that there were no funds in the second retirement account that wife identified. The court denied husband’s motion to enforce, finding it barred by the eight-year statute of limitations for actions on judgments. The Vermont Supreme Court did not consider husband’s attempt to effectuate a transfer of these retirement funds by QDRO to be an action on a judgment, and therefore reversed and remanded. View "Johnston v. Johnston" on Justia Law

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Petitioner and her spouse adopted their son through Department for Children and Families in 2003. As part of the adoption process, petitioner entered into an adoption-assistance agreement with DCF, which provided for a daily subsidy payment of $50.69. Per the agreement’s terms, both the adoptive parent and DCF had to agree to any changes. Shortly before the child turned eighteen, DCF notified petitioner the existing agreement would terminate on the child's birthday. In the February 2017 notification letter, DCF explained that the child might be eligible for an “Over Age 18 Adoption Assistance Agreement” if the child had been diagnosed with a lifelong physical or mental disability, and it described the application process. In a March 2017 letter, DCF offered petitioner what it characterized as a “separate” and “over-age-18” adoption-assistance agreement at a daily rate of $27.59. The new rate was the maximum available standard rate for children in foster care. Petitioner appealed the amount of the subsidy to the Board, arguing federal law prohibited DCF from unilaterally modifying the amount of the adoption-assistance subsidy when the child turned eighteen. Petitioner maintained that DCF had to negotiate the amount with the adoptive parents. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded federal law did not preclude DCF from adopting a policy, and entering into adoption-assistance agreements that offered reduced adoption-assistance subsidies to adoptive parents of qualifying children over eighteen. View "In re Appeal of McSweeney" on Justia Law

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Husband, Mark Atherton, appealed the trial court’s order denying his motion to modify spousal maintenance payments to wife, Holly Atherton, for failure to show a real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances as required by 15 V.S.A. 758. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the trial court applied an erroneous standard when determining whether husband’s employment termination resulted in a “real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances” for the purposes of modification of the spousal maintenance order. The Court remanded this case back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Atherton v. Atherton" on Justia Law

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Mother appealed an order concluding that her children were children in need of care or supervision (CHINS) due to educational neglect. In April 2018, the State filed a petition alleging that B.C., born in January 2007, Bo.B., born in May 2012, and Br.B., born in April 2013, were CHINS for lack of proper education necessary for their well-being. B.C. had been referred to an educational support team because she was not meeting certain achievement levels in her educational program. In prior years, there had been three educational neglect/truancy assessments involving B.C. In January 2018, the assistant principal reported to the Department for Children and Families (DCF) that B.C. had missed twenty-two days and Bo.B. had missed thirty-two days of school and all absences were unexcused. By March 2018, B.C. and Bo.B. had missed thirty-eight and fifty days of school, respectively. DCF contacted mother, who asserted that the absences were occurring because she was not receiving sufficient support from the school, the children were often absent due to illness, and transportation was a barrier. When asked, mother did not appear to understand the details of Bo.B.’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). DCF set up a plan to implement services through NCSS in March, however, mother cancelled the meeting. The court found that the three children were CHINS due to the parents’ inability to provide for the children’s educational needs. The court found that the children’s absences resulted in missed educational opportunities that put them at risk of harm, especially in light of their needs. On appeal, mother argued: (1) the court erred in not requiring the State to demonstrate that the children’s absences were without justification; (2) the evidence did not support the court’s finding that missing school caused the children harm; (3) the existence of IEPs for the two young children, who were not legally required to attend school, did not support a finding of educational neglect; and (4) the court erred in admitting the school attendance records. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed as to B.C. and reversed and remanded the CHINS determinations as to Bo.B. and Br.B. "[T]he evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that Bo.B. and Br.B. were at risk of harm for educational neglect given that they were not required to attend school and mother could discontinue the services related to their IEPs without any presumption of neglect." View "In re B.B., B.C., and B.B., Juveniles" on Justia Law

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The parties’ daughter was born in July 2002. In November 2012, the family division of the superior court entered a final order awarding primary legal rights and responsibilities for daughter to mother, subject to an obligation to consult with father prior to making any major decisions. The court ordered the parties to share physical rights and responsibilities. The schedule set forth in the order called for daughter to spend approximately half of her time with each parent. The parties were required to attempt to resolve any disputes about parenting issues through mediation before returning to court. In August 2017, father filed a motion to enforce parent-child contact. He claimed that mother had consistently interfered with his contact with daughter and recently had prevented him from seeing daughter at all. Mother denied father’s allegations that she had interfered with his contact with daughter. She asserted that daughter, who was now fifteen years old, felt uncomfortable and anxious around father and no longer wanted to have contact with him. After an unsuccessful attempt at mediation, the parties renewed their motions. Father appealed the superior court’s decision granting mother’s motion to modify parental rights and responsibilities and permitting father to have contact with the parties’ minor child only if the child agreed. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the modification of parental rights and responsibilities, but reversed and remanded the parent-child contact order. The Court determined the family court should consider contact for consistent with the child's best interests. View "Wright v. Kemp" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law