Courthouse Divorce File: What's Private?

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

The public thirsts for gossip, apparent in websites like TMZ and Perz Hilton. Celebrity splits are big news such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. While most of us do not enjoy celebrity status, the small town rumor mill can be just as virulent as celebrity gossip. Divorce litigants should beware the rules regarding public access to their divorce file. Anyone can head down to the local courthouse and view all the happenings in the neighbor's divorce or co-worker's custody battle.  

The prominent case on this issue is the Petition of Keene Sentinel issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on August 27, 1992. During the 1990 political campaign for New Hampshire’s Second congressional seat, The Keene Sentinel sought to gain access to one of the incumbent’s, Charles Douglas III’s divorce records. The clerk granted the Keene Sentinel only some of the divorce records, citing privacy concerns. The Keene Sentinel brought suit and Charles Douglas III sought to intervene, asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The Superior Court ultimately denied the Keene Sentinel’s request.

The Keene Sentinel appealed, arguing that “disclosure should have been permitted pursuant to RSA chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law.” The Supreme Court held that a party in a divorce proceeding cannot have the records sealed simply for the sake of general privacy concerns.  The Court held that “[b]efore a document is ordered sealed, the trial judge must determine that no reasonable alternative to nondisclosure exists.” If a trial judge does make such a determination, it must use the least restrictive means available to secure the parties’ privacy rights.

This generally requires that the orders, pleadings and other materials in the file are open to the public for viewing. An exception is a financial affidavit. A party is required by the court to complete and submit a sworn financial affidavit, detailing all income, property and debts. This document usually contains very personal information such as social security numbers, bank information and paystubs. Family Division Rule 2.16 and RSA 458:15-b requires financial affidavits to be confidential for non-parties. In practice, this means that the court file contains an envelope which the clerk will remove if you are not a party to the case. Financial affidavits filed in divorce, legal separation, annulment, or parenting petition cases shall be confidential to non-parties. Access to such financial affidavits shall be pursuant to Family Division Rule 1.30. However, a person not otherwise entitled to access may file a motion under Family Division Rule 1.30 to gain access to the financial affidavit. 

The Associated Press v. NH gives some context to the rule regarding financial affidavit confidentiality. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its holding in this case on December 30, 2005.   After RSA 458:15-b took effect on August 10, 2004, which, inter alia, made financial affidavits in divorce proceedings only accessible to parties to the proceeding and their attorneys of record, the Associated Press filed suit claiming the law was unconstitutional. The Associated Press argued that the law “violated the public’s right of access to court records” under the State Constitution, and that it was an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech per the State and Federal Constitutions.  The trial court determined that the law was not unconstitutional, and dismissed The Associated Press’ suit. The Associated Press appealed the trial court decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the law was constitutional.

 The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and finding RSA 458:15-b constitutional. The Court ruled that although the public has a right to access government documents, including court documents, the right is not unlimited.  It opined that "the right of access may be overcome when a sufficiently compelling interest for nondisclosure is identified,” which included the compelling interest to prevent exposing divorce litigants to identify theft and fraud. The Court’s ruling was narrow, however, and only applied to keeping financial affidavits sealed. 

In general, the Court may upon request consider keeping confidential case-related materials for collateral cases that are already confidential pursuant to New Hampshire law. These include termination of parental rights, adoption, juvenile criminal records and abuse/neglect cases and DCYF records.  

 

In re Deven O: Father rebutted presumption of abandonment in termination of parental rights

The Supreme Court issued In Re Deven O. on November 7, 2013.

The Facts

Deven was born in June 2006 and lived with his parents until they split up in December 2006. Deven lived with his mother and visited with his father a few days each month until December 2007, when father was arrested and incarcerated for armed robbery. Mother visited father in prison, but Deven visited just once. When father was released to a half-way house in June 2010, father visited with Deven multiple times per week over the next three months. In September 2010, mother told father that she did not want him visiting with Deven until he “straightened out his life.”

In October 2010, mother filed a petition to change Deven’s name. Although she knew father had been released from prison, she listed father’s address as the prison. Father found out about the name change in December 2010 after she posted about it online. Father contacted mother that month to arrange for Christmas gifts. In March 2011, father began to attempt to arrange for parenting time with Deven by calling mother. He also contacted mother’s father for help try to arrange visits. When these efforts failed, he filed a parenting petition in December 2011. Mother countered by filing a petition to terminate father’s parental rights.

Following a trial, the court terminated the father’s parental rights on the grounds of abandonment and failure to support, and made a finding that the termination was in Deven’s best interest. 

The Appeal

The father appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there were grounds to terminate his parental rights. The father also asserted that he had no legal obligation to support the child because he was not listed on the birth certificate and there was no child support order. 

The Holding

The Supreme Court held that the mother failed to sustain her heavy burden and that there was insufficient evidence to support the termination of father’s parental rights. Parental rights are a fundamental liberty interest that cannot be pushed aside because a person has not been a model parent. The Court emphasized that a finding that six months passed without communication between the parent and child is only the first step in the analysis, and the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the presumption of abandonment has been rebutted. The Supreme Court reminded trial courts to consider whether the parent's conduct "evidences a willingness to take on responsibility and concern for the child's physical and emotional care and well-being." Here, although there was a six month period without contact, the evidence of father’s repeated efforts to make contact with Deven prior to his filing of a parenting petition rebutted the presumption.

The Court also considered the mother’s refusal to allow access to the child. The Court looked to its opinion in In Re Sheena B., where the court determined that there could be no abandonment where the separation between a parent and child was caused solely by the other parent. Thus, the Court held, when considering the father's efforts to see Deven and the mother's refusal to allow the contact, that there was “insufficient evidence to support a finding of a settled purpose to abandon the child.”

The Supreme Court notes that the statute does not define, nor has the Court addressed, what it means to be “financially able” to provide a child with necessary subsistence, education or other care as RSA 170-C:5,II. However, here, the Court did not need to address this issue because it found that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that father was financially able but failed to support Deven.

The Takeaway

Deven O. was third in a string of termination of parental rights cases the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued opinions on in 2013. See In re Sophia-Marie H. & In re Faith T. All were private terminations where a parent or guardian sought termination of the rights of a parent (as opposed to DCYF initiated case). In each case, the Supreme Court emphasized that parental rights are “natural, essential, and inherent” within the meaning of the Constitution of New Hampshire and refused to terminate parental rights. Parental rights cannot be ignored because a person has not been an ideal parent.  These three cases act as a large neon caution sign for trial courts in termination proceedings.

Termination of Parental Rights or Surrender of Parental Rights: What's the Difference?

I have received many questions about the similarities and differences between a surrender of parental rights and a termination of parental rights. While the end result is often the same when the parental rights and responsibilities of a parent are permanently severed, there many differences to be aware of. 

Similarities

• Both are proceedings that can end in the permanent severing of all parental rights and responsibilities of a parent.

• Parents who are surrendering or may have their parental rights terminated are entitled to an attorney, and if they cannot afford one the court will appoint an attorney to represent them.

• Both proceedings are confidential.

Differences

• In a surrender of parental rights, all the parties agree to terminate the rights of a parent; a termination of parental rights can be either contested or uncontested. A TPR petition does not always result in a termination of one or both parents parental rights. 

• A parent in a surrender is entitled to counseling at the expense of the petitioning party about the parent’s decision to place the child up for adoption.

• The court is required to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the child in a termination proceeding; a surrender petition does not require the appointment of a guardian ad litem.

• A surrender of parental rights requires that there be a pending adoption, where a termination of parental rights does not. An adoption does not always follow a termination of parental rights case.  

• A termination proceeding requires that the court make a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that grounds exist to terminate the parental rights of a parent and that it is in the best interests of the child. A surrender does not require such findings, only the agreement of the parties that the surrender take place.

• TPR cases are heard in the Circuit Court- Family Division, and surrender cases are either in the Circuit Court – Family Division or the Circuit Court – Probate Division depending on the specific facts of the case.

In Re Guardianship of Matthew L: A call for non-biological parents to secure parental rights


The Supreme Court issued an opinion In Re Guardianship of Matthew L. on December 21, 2012. 

The Facts

Mary and Joan began a committed relationship in 2004. Two years later, they began to plan for a family. Mary became pregnant in 2006 through artificial insemination, and gave birth to Matthew in April 2007. In June 2007, Mary and Joan petitioned to establish a co-guardianship to secure a legal, familial relationship between Matthew and Joan.

Mary ended her relationship with Joan in March 2008, and petitioned to terminate the co-guardianship a few months later. The motion was denied in October 2009. Mary renewed her request to terminate the co-guardianship in June 2010, and the issue went to trial in December 2011. Following the first day of trial, the Supreme Court issued its opinion In Re Guardianship of Reena D. Reena D. held that a guardianship established by consent requires the guardian to bear the burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision is necessary to provide for the essential physical and safety needs of the minor and that terminating the guardianship will adversely affect the minor’s psychological well-being.

The trial resumed in March 2012, and the parties agreed that Reena D. applied. Joan asked for a continuance to prepare additional evidence and hire an expert since it was now her burden of proof. The trial court denied the motion, and following completion of the trial, ruled that Joan had failed to carry her burden that the continuation of the co-guardianship was necessary to provide for Matthew essential physical and safety needs. The court terminated the co-guardianship.

The Appeal

Joan appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the trial court erred by refusing to grant her motion to continue and that the trial court misinterpreted Reena D. to require her to prove both that the guardianship continued to be necessary to provide for Matthew’s essential physical and safety needs and that terminating the guardianship would adversely affect his psychological well-being.

The Holding

On the first question regarding the continuance, the Supreme Court held that it could not conclude that the trial court’s ruling was an unsustainable exercise of discretion. Where the trial court has broad discretion over its proceedings, and the record showed that the trial court had access to the GAL’s investigation and report which included information from Matthew’s therapist and the parent’s co-parenting counselor, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court could have reasonably concluded that neither a continuance nor a new trial was required.

On the issue interpreting Reena D., the Supreme Court held that the question had not been preserved before the trial court because the general rule requires a specific and contemporaneous objection before the trial court. The court noted that “this rule, which is based on common sense and judicial economy, recognizes that trial forums should have an opportunity to rule on issues and to correct errors before they are presented to the appellate court. Despite affirming the appeal, the opinion provides a lengthy discussion of the parties’ arguments because they raise public policy concerns that the legislature may wish to address. The resolution before the court is left to another day.

The thrust of Joan’s argument is that by requiring her to prove both parts of a conjunctive test, instead of either part, it creates a dissimilar standard between the test to obtain a guardianship over the objection of a parent and to continue a guardianship previously consented to. For example, to obtain a guardianship when a parent objects requires the petitioner to prove pursuant to RSA 463:8, III(B) that the guardianship is necessary to either provide for the physical and safety needs of the child or to avoid adverse effects to the child’s psychological well-being. Joan argues that the termination of the guardianship should also be granted only if neither of the situations is true. She argues that “having different standards for the creation and termination of guardianships would foster instability in children’s lives, thereby contravening the entire purpose of guardianships.”

Mary, on the other hand, argues that Joan is “comparing apples to oranges.” She says that it should be easier to terminate a guardianship obtained through consent then to win guardianship over the objection of a parent. Otherwise, it would be contrary to the public policy of encouraging a struggling parent to make a difficult choice and allow for a guardianship if it will be near impossible to terminate that guardianship over the objection of the guardian.

The Takeaway

This is an interesting case in that the major, important question before the court remains unanswered despite a lengthy discussion of the issue by the court. Prior to the holding in Reena D., the trial courts generally applied a standard requiring the parent to prove that neither the physical safety of the child required supplementation of care nor would the child’s psychological well-being be impacted by the termination of the guardianship. It is a significant change to then require it to be proved that both are still true. Where a parent may be able to care for the child’s physical and safety needs without the guardianship in place, it will more often be the case where there will be a significant adverse effect on the child taken away from his caregiver who he has formed an attachment. The amicus brief filed by the National Association of Social Workers aptly points out that “just as courts have recognized that children form attachment bonds with caregivers, and do so without regard to biological or legal relationships, so they have recognized that disrupting a child’s attachment bonds can severely harm him or her.” With the burden shifted by Reena D., the legislature should act to make the test for the termination of a previously consented to guardianship disjunctive.

One cannot help feeling bad for the little boy in this case who has lost the legal relationship to one of his parents at the urging of his other parent. The October 2009 trial court order found that “Mary and Joan referred to each other both as Matthew’s mother; encouraged Matthew to look to both of them as mothers; and held themselves out to others as Matthew’s mothers.” Furthermore, that “[b]oth Mary and Joan are excellent parents.  Both love Matthew tremendously and show their love for him. … [T]he GAL had no concerns with either Mary or Joan as a parent.  The GAL noted that each has different qualities for nurturing Matthew.”

This case is an important example, at the expense of the well-being of this little boy, that a non-biological parent, whether in a same-sex relationship or heterosexual relationship, must secure unbreakable parental rights to protect their relationship with their child. Guardianship, at least under the Reena D. standard, does not adequately secure those rights since the legal relationship and rights that come with a guardianship can be severed. Adoption is the only means that will provide permanent security to the child and the parent. 

Top 5 things birth mothers should know about New Hampshire adoption

If you are a birth mother considering adoption, these are the top 5 things you should know about New Hampshire adoptions:

  • You have the right to have an attorney help you through the adoption process and you will not be charged for attorney services. The adoptive parents pay for your legal fees, but the attorney will work for you.  
  • Birth mothers can receive reasonable birth-related. expenses after choosing an adoptive family which are paid for by the adoptive parents
  • You can be as involved as you want in the selection of your child's adoptive family and you can choose the degree of openness of the adoption.
  • You have the right to change your mind about adoption at any time until the consent becomes final. You will not be able to legally relinquish your rights to your baby until 72 hours after the child is born.
  • Adoption can be a difficult emotional process, and you do not have to go through it alone. An experienced attorney will help you through the legal process, and you are entitled to counseling to assist you with your feelings about the adoption.

If you are a birth mother considering adoption, please contact me at anytime, and I will get back to you right away to  answer your questions and meet with you at your convenience at your home, at the hospital or at my office.

Second parent adoption for same-sex spouses: Is it necessary?

Second parent adoption, also referred to as co-parent adoption or stepparent adoption, is the process where two parents, one who is a legal parent and one who is a legal stranger, create a permanent and legal relationship between the child and both parents.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports same-sex second parent adoption, and explains these reasons for insuring both parents have legal rights:

Children deserve to know that their relationships with both of their parents are stable and legally recognized. This applies to all children, whether their parents are of the same or opposite sex.

 

When two adults participate in parenting a child, they and the child deserve the serenity that comes with legal recognition.

 

Denying legal parent status through adoption to co-parents or second parents prevents these children from enjoying the psychologic and legal security that comes from having two willing, capable, and loving parents.

New Hampshire has allowed second parent adoption for same-sex couples who are married since 2007, where previously only opposite sex spouses or single persons could adopt. This change came about with the recognition in New Hampshire of civil unions in January 2008, and eventually same-sex marriage in January 2010. It is important to remember that in New Hampshire the parents must be married. Some hospitals in New Hampshire will list a married same-sex couple as co-parents on the birth certificate of their child.

 

However, even with both parents listed on the birth certificate, it is still important to seek an adoption by the non-bio parent. Marriage entitles a non-biological parent to a presumption of parenthood, but that presumption is rebuttable. In other words, parenthood could be contested, and without solidifying parental rights and responsibilities with an adoption, the non-biological parent is vulnerable. Second, most other states do not recognize same-sex marriage, and legal parenthood gained by marriage for a same-sex partner may not be acknowledged in a different state. Adoption creates a binding court decree that is recognized by all states, whether passing through or moving to.

 

The second parent adoption will protect the child's right to inheritance, health insurance, social security benefits and child support. The adoptive parent will have enforceable rights of custody and visitation, and parental rights and responsibilities in the event the biological parent passes away, regardless of the jurisdiction the family resides in. Additionally, when an emergency medical decision needs to be made for the child, the adoptive parent will have the ability to make the decision.

 

Other Resources:

 

Raising Hope Custody Drama: Real or Not Real?

One of my favorite blogs is Law and the Multiverse. The blog’s premise is to take fictional situations from movies, comic books, and televisions shows and discuss the legal ramifications by applying relevant law. Have you ever wondered whether mutants are a protected class? They have the answer. Want to know whether superheroes have a duty to rescue? Check here. Ever thought they just got the law wrong in Snakes on a Plane? You were right.  

I must have had this blog on the brain while watching Fox’s comedy Raising Hope. The show ended its second season with a courtroom custody drama titled “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back.” Jimmy Chance, two year old Hope’s father, is engaged in a custody battle with Hope’s mother Lucy Carlisle, a boyfriend-murdering serial killer who survived execution. The show is very funny, and clearly this episode was going for laughs and not realism. But that didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes or yelling “come on” at some of the absurdly unrealistic depictions of family law. So I thought that I would play Katniss and Peeta’s “real or not real” game Law and the Multiverse style.

Suppressing Evidence

First up, at the start of the trial, the mother’s attorney stands and makes an oral “Motion to Suppress Evidence of My Client as a Serial Killer.” She argues that the mother’s serial killer background should be suppressed because the charges were dismissed as part of a settlement deal from Lucy’s lawsuit against the prison, and therefore technically never happened. Assuming Lucy’s attorney is making the argument based on Rule of Evidence 403, which allows the exclusion of relevant evidence if the probative value is outweighed by the prejudicial nature of the evidence. Of course the fact that Lucy is a serial killer is prejudicial to Lucy, but it is not more prejudicial than probative, and would not be excluded on this basis.

Even if the judge found that it was more prejudicial than probative, in New Hampshire family cases, the judge has the flexibility to disregard the Rules of Evidence. Pursuant to Family Division Rule 2.2, the Rules of Evidence do not apply in divorce and parenting matters. The judge may, in her discretion, apply the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence “to enhance the predictable, orderly, fair, and reliable presentation of evidence.” The evidence of Lucy’s murder spree would absolutely come in as it is critical to the determination of the child’s best interests. The verdict: not real.

Jury Trial

Next, in Raising Hope land, a jury will hear the custody trial and issue a verdict. When the evidence of Lucy’s violent past is suppressed, Jimmy and his parents are not too worried because only locals “who were living under a rock” would not recognize Lucy as the serial killer from her high-profile trial. And then they bring out a jury composed only of miners who were stuck underground during the murders and trial. The Chance’s lawyer quips that he thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do to let his opposing counsel pick the jury (The Chances should probably be looking into malpractice claims). Of course, in reality, juries do not hear family cases. In New Hampshire, a judge (RSA 490-F), marital master, or child support referee (RSA 490-F:15) preside in the family division and issue court orders. The verdict: not real.

Presence of Minors in Courtroom

The jury renders a verdict in favor of the mother, granting custody of Hope to Lucy. While the verdict is being read, Hope sits on her father’s lap. Pursuant to New Hampshire Family Division Rule 2.8 “a child shall not be brought to court as a witness, or to attend a hearing, or be involved in depositions without prior order of the Court allowing that child’s participation. To obtain permission of the Court for the presence of a child in such a proceeding, good cause must be shown.” There are some exceptions for domestic relations cases, such as adoptions (RSA 170-B:19), guardianships of children over the age of 14 (RSA 463:8 and Family Division Rule 5.4), and certain circumstances in abuse and neglect cases (Family Division Rule 4.5). However, these exceptions do not apply in parenting rights and responsibility cases like the Chance custody trial, and Hope would not be permitted in the courtroom. The verdict: not real.

Brawl in the Courtroom

Finally, after the verdict is read, Virginia and Burt, Jimmy’s parents, begin wrestling with the bailiffs and generally causing a ruckus in the courtroom. The Chances seem to remain incarceration-free despite the fracas. This kind of behavior would probably have landed Virginia and Burt in jail for direct criminal contempt. The judge must preserve and protect the dignity and authority of the court, and the Chances conduct violates such dignity and authority. The verdict: not real.

Raising Hope gets an A for laughs, but and F for realism. I’ll still tune in though.

Understanding Same-Sex Divorce

In November, I authored an article on same-sex marriages in the New Hampshire Bar News geared towards helping practioners understand unique issues in same-sex divorces. I reprint here the full article:

Practicing family law in one of the six states that recognizes same-sex marriage requires an understanding of the unique challenges that same-sex couples face in a divorce. Usually, a divorce provides a mechanism to dissolve the legal relationship, divide property and establish parental rights and responsibilities. Although same-sex couples can dissolve their marriage in New Hampshire, reaching a fair and reasonable property division or establishing parental rights and responsibilities is much more difficult.

Marriage & Divorce

New Hampshire practitioners have limited precedent to guide them on several thorny issues that are distinctive to same-sex couples. Ironically, one of the few cases involving same-sex relationships, which is still good law, is now inconsistent with the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage. In the Matter of Blanchflower held that adultery does not include homosexual relationships. The court based its decision on the definition in New Hampshire of adultery, which excludes all non-coital sex acts, no matter the gender of the persons engaging in the act. Thus, although other fault grounds may be pursued, adultery is off the table for same-sex divorcing couples. The Blanchflower Court noted that it was not the function of the judiciary to extend past legislation to provide for present needs.

A common dispute in same-sex divorce is the calculation of the length of the marriage. In cases where the parties’ cohabitated long term prior to the marriage, one party may attempt to tack on the cohabitation to increase the length of the marriage and impact alimony and property division. This argument stems from the claim that had the parties been able to marry, they would have. Without New Hampshire precedent, the court may look to Massachusetts for guidance, where the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that marriage benefits apply prospectively to the legalization of same-sex marriage. In addition to the cohabitation argument, the question also remains whether domestic partnerships, like those in California or New Jersey, might be similar enough to a marriage to tack on and create a long-term marriage.

Alimony

The IRS identifies alimony as payments made between spouses or former spouses pursuant to a divorce or separation agreement. Typically, alimony is deductible to the payor and includable as income to the payee for federal income tax purposes. However, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and in turn precludes the IRS from recognizing a same-sex spouse as such. Although the IRS has not provided specific guidance on the issue, it seems clear that alimony payments are not tax deductible to the payor and may incur a gift tax liability. The IRS might alternatively consider the payments compensation for past services, with income tax, self-employment tax and possible withholding obligations. Either treatment will incur tax consequences that could be financially devastating to the family.

Property Division

In "traditional" divorces, opposite-sex couples rarely invokes tax consequences during the division of their marital assets. Such property transfers meet specific IRS exemption rules. Same-sex couples on the other hand can be saddled with a large tax liability as a result of property division.

The Defense of Marriage Act disqualifies same-sex spouses from the tax exemptions for property transfers made pursuant to a divorce decree. Instead, same-sex couples incur a gift tax liability for most transfers made between the spouses or former spouses in excess of $13,000. For example, if one spouse transfers $30,000 to the other spouse for property settlement, $17,000 would be taxable. In addition to gift tax, same-sex couples must be aware of capital gains tax when the home is transferred from joint ownership to one spouse.

A specific part of property division is the ability of a spouse to transfer property to a spouse or former spouse by qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) pursuant to the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a portion of a retirement plan or tax sheltered annuity. The tax treatment of such transfers depends on the word "spouse." In other words, in order to qualify for the tax-free transfer benefits, the relationship must be recognized by the IRS as a marriage. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, a QDRO is not a vehicle available to same-sex couples to transfer retirement assets tax-free. Instead, same-sex couples must pay taxes and early withdrawal penalties on transfers made to the other spouse, regardless of whether it is deposited into the other spouses’s retirement account.

Parental Rights & Responsibilities

New Hampshire follows the legal principal that a child born into a marriage is presumed to be the legal child of both spouses. This presumption of legitimacy may be attacked however, and if successful could drastically affect the non-biological parent’s right to seek parenting rights and responsibilities, including residential responsibilities. Although the step-parent statute might be a useful tool in this circumstance, the parenting rights accessed through this avenue could look much different than the rights of a legal parent. Co-parent adoption is the safest way to establish protected parenting rights for each spouse.

After TPR & Adoption: Grandparents may petition for visitation rights

Grandparent’s rights vary from state to state. In New Hampshire, grandparent’s visitation rights are specifically designated by statute. However, obtaining visitation is not as easy as filing a petition and being granted time with one’s grandchildren. In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Troxel v. Granville, which struck down a breathtakingly broad Washington state statute that allowed any third party to sue for visitation over the objection of the parents and the outcome determined solely by the judge’s estimation of the child’s best interests, New Hampshire restricts the situations in which a grandparent can petition to establish visitation.

In order to pursue grandparent visitation, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, “whether divorce, death, relinquishment or termination of parental rights, or other cause.” Prior to the recent New Hampshire Supreme Court opinion In Re Athena D., it was unsettled whether a new nuclear family, brought about by the termination of parental rights and the adoption of the child, would cut off the rights of natural grandparents to visitation. The take away from Athena D. is that “petitions for grandparent visitation in the case of termination of parental rights are to be treated in the same manner as in the case of the death of a parent, stepparent adoption, or unwed parents.”

The Athena D. holding is especially important for the protection of society’s most vulnerable children. Children who are the subject of cases brought under the Child Protection Act, and subsequently state-action termination proceedings, may have indispensable bonds with their natural grandparents that must be preserved. While the children may need to be protected from the parents, and adopted into a new family, a child’s best interest may demand continued contact with the natural grandparents over the objection of the adoptive parents. This holding allows for that, so long as the grandparents meet the other requirements of a petition for grandparent’s visitation rights as set forth in RSA 461-A:13.

UCCJEA Now Effective

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) went into effect on December 1, 2010 in New Hampshire. Following the lead of 46 other states, the UCCJEA replaces the old UCCJA, which is still the law in Massachusetts and Vermont. The act affects almost every case that involves parental rights and responsibilities, including divorce, parenting petitions, child abuse and neglect, guardianships of minors, termination of parental rights, and domestic violence petitions where minor children are involved.   

 

Important points about the new law:

  • Requires that once the “home state” of the child has been determined, and child custody orders have been issued, that state has “exclusive continuing jurisdiction” for so long as the child or either parent reside there.
  • Eliminates the confusing “best interests” standard included in the UCCJA, which some courts interpreted as a mandate to consider best interests factors over and above jurisdictional matters.
  • Adds enforcement tools including a role for public authorities, such as prosecutors, to enforce custody orders and the ability for the court to issue a emergency relief such as a warrant to take possession of a child should the court be concerned that the parent with control over the child may flee.

The new law brings about a slew of new and revised forms. For petitioners, forms such as a Petition for Divorce, Petition for Guardianship over Minor, or a Domestic Violence Petition have been modified to include required information. For respondents, the court has developed a separate form titled a UCCJEA Affidavit to complete in response to an initial petition.

 

Navigating the requirements of the UCCJEA can be overwhelming for those involved in cases of parenting rights and responsibilities. It is important to retain competent legal counsel to assist you. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC for more information.

Same-sex couple adoption in New Hampshire

Can a same-sex couple adopt a child together in New Hampshire? The question, although simple, does not have a simple answer. Currently, the laws in New Hampshire leave the question open to interpretation.

As I have blogged about previously, New Hampshire is one of four states that recognizes a civil union. New Hampshire's civil union statute confers "all the rights and [is] subject to all the obligations and responsibilities provided for in state law that apply to parties who are joined together" in marriage.  However, the adoption statute allows for a "husband and wife together" or an "unmarried adult" to adopt. The adoption statue, when strictly interpreted, does not reflect the changes in the law regarding civil unions.

At this point, different judges have different interpretations of the adoption and civil union statutes. Until the legislature addresses the issue and revises the adoption statute to reflect the new civil union law or a case goes up to the supreme court, a same-sex couple may encounter a bump in the road towards adoption. For those proactive about such issues, you can contact your local state representative and bring the issue to their attention.