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. 

Vote No on Question 2: Don't politicize our courts

Voters will be asked on Nov. 6 to approve an amendment to Part 2, Art. 73-a of the New Hampshire Constitution. If the amendment passes, the legislature would be given final say over how the New Hampshire Judicial Branch, an independent branch of government, operates. I oppose the amendment because it allows for a legislative takeover of the courts that violates separation of powers.

Allowing the legislature to dictate court procedures will politicize the courts. Court rules would be subject to change whenever the legislature meets and according to the influence of the political party in control, creating unpredictable and inconsistent procedures and outcomes.

The Nashua Telegraph opined on October 2, 2012 that “the proposed amendment makes a mockery of the system of checks and balances crucial to American government” Instead of an independent judiciary, “the Legislature would be the boss of the New Hampshire’s court system.”

I am voting no on question 2, and I hope that you will join me.

Concord, we have a problem!

Crazy things are going on in Concord that needs your attention. Currently, there are several bills that would dramatically change the practice of family law in New Hampshire, and not for the better. A group of disgruntled litigants are attempting for the third time to remove a distinguished marital master from the bench. Finally, Governor Lynch’s proposed budget eliminates the guardian ad litem fund and appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases, a proposal that would be disastrous for the overburdened court system and children they protect.  

Pending Legislation

 

The New Hampshire family court system is not perfect and I am sure that there is room for improvement. Unlike other areas of the law, which are black and white, the grey nature of family law requires the vesting of discretion within the court to allow a result based on the unique facts of each case. However, the legislature seems intent on radical change that removes discretion from the courts, and mandates certain outcomes.

  • HB 587 proposes that no fault divorces be granted only to couples who do not have children under the age of 18. Instead, divorcing couples with minor children must prove one of the fault grounds, such as adultery, extreme cruelty, endangerment of health or reason, habitual drunkenness, or abandonment. Though the aim may be to keep families together by requiring a person seeking a divorce to prove fault, the end result would be increased litigation, expense and animosity in cases involving children. Such a result is in no one’s best interests.
  • HB 538 would require the family division to report a vast amount of information to the state registrar about parental rights and responsibilities matters. The bill proposes that the court must report statistics on every temporary or permanent order on parental rights and responsibilities, including tallying whether mothers or fathers were awarded decision making and residential responsibility. The bill also requires the Supreme Court to implement standards of practice and oversight of GALs. This bill creates an extreme amount of work for an all ready underfunded court system, and duplicates oversight and discipline provided by the GAL Board. In today’s tough times, it’s the least important thing on the plate.
  •  HB 563 would discard the current child support calculations and set child support to either the net income multiplied by the applicable percentage or the foster care reimbursement rates, whichever is less. Where to start with what is wrong with this bill? It drastically reduces all child support rates by basing child support on net income instead of gross income and tying child support to the foster care reimbursement rates. For example, the most that any obligor would ever have to pay for a child age 0 to 5 would be $474. That amount does not even cover daycare for one child, let alone diapers, formula, clothing, food and shelter.

If you have comments or concerns about these bills, contact your legislature to make your voice heard. You can find the contact information for your representative or senator on the state website.  

 

Impeachment of Master Cross

 

For three years, family court litigants David Johnson and Michael Puia have waged a public war against Marital Master Philip Cross through the legislature. Despite the legislature's vote against the Bill of Address seeking to remove Master Cross from the bench, Rep Itse has sponsored a house resolution seeking to direct the the house judiciary committee "to investigate whether grounds exist to impeach marital master Phillip Cross and/or any justice of the New Hampshire superior court."

 

Such a maneuver is a dangerous, slippery slope for the legislature. In its 235 year history, the State of New Hampshire has impeached two judges. Impeachment is reserved for the most serious of offenses, defined by the Constitution as "bribery, corruption, malpractice or maladministration."  The nature of the allegations enumerated in the resolution cannot on its face be characterized as one of these four acts.

 

Instead, the allegations evidence unhappy litigants who do not understand the court system. Therein is the slippery slope. If every litigant who received an adverse decision were able to bring their grievance to the legislature and initiate impeachment proceedings, the State of New Hampshire would have no judges left. Master Cross alone heard over 6,000 cases last year. Add in the 90 plus judges and masters across the state, and the legislature would have their hands full.

 

The hearing before the Resolution Committee on this matter will occur at the Legislative Office Building, 30 North State Street, Concord, on Tuesday, the 22nd, @ 3:30pm.

 

State Budget

 

Governor Lynch has proposed a budget that eliminates both the GAL Fund and assigned counsel for parents accused of abuse and neglect. This proposed change would go into effect on July 1, 2011.

 

Currently, the GAL Fund works as follows: The court assigns a Guardian ad Litem to a case to represent the best interests of a child. These cases include divorce, parenting petitions, termination of parental rights, guardianships and other family matters. In the event that one or both of the litigants qualifies under certain income guidelines, the court orders that the qualifying parent’s portion of the payment owed to the GAL will go through the GAL fund. The parties are then required to contact the Office of Cost Containment and set up a payment schedule. Services rendered by GALs through the GAL fund are not free, and the parents must pay back the funds.

In abuse and neglect cases, the Division of Children, Youth and Families files a petition against a parent alleging that a child is abused or neglected. A possible consequence of an abuse or neglect petition can be the filing of a petition to terminate a parent’s parental rights. Parental rights are constitutional rights, similar to a defendant charged in a criminal case. Additionally, assigned counsel is subject to reimbursement from the parents. In other words, a parent does not get a free attorney, and may have to pay back some or all of the funds.

 

The results of the Governor’s proposed cuts would be disastrous. Eliminating the GAL fund would deny access to the court system to low income families. Judges would be unable to make informed decisions regarding custody of children without the services of a guardian ad litem, and children would be put in harm’s way. In abuse and neglect cases, a flood of litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and the law will wash through and muddy an all ready overburdened court. Then, eventually, when a parent who has not been afforded counsel has their constitutional right to parent terminated will win an appeal on those grounds and children who need permanent homes will continue to live in limbo.

 

I get that the state is looking to eliminate entitlement programs, but these programs are not free and are about access to justice and the protection of constitutional rights. Instead of eliminating the programs, the state should implement a better system to insure that more parents are paying into the system as they have been court ordered to do.

 

Please write to Governor Lynch, and tell him how his proposed budget affects your family.

New Year, New Child Support Guidelines

On January 1, 2011, two pieces of legislation will go into effect modifying some aspects of the child support guidelines.

Allowable daycare expenses

 

The child support guidelines allow for a credit to a parent who pays daycare expenses that are “work-related”. Currently, allowable daycare expenses are capped at up to no more than an annual total of $5,000 for one child, $9,000 for 2 children, and $12,000 for 3 or more children. For one child, the cap translates to about $416 per month. HB 1993 expands the definition of “work-related” to include daycare required for a parent’s education and training. In addition, the new law will remove the cap on allowable expenses, allowing a parent to claim all work-related daycare in the guidelines calculations.

 

Self-support reserve

 

Child support orders require that the obligor be left with a self-support reserve, i.e. a sum of money that the obligor will have to support him or her before paying out child support. Currently, the self-support reserve is $903 per month. On January 1, 2010, HB 1216 increases the self-support reserve to $1,038 per month.

Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act comes to NH in December 2010

New Hampshire has recently taken steps to protect parents and children from cross border kidnapping by adopting the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA, drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) in 1997, becomes effective in New Hampshire on December 1, 2010. Vermont and Massachusetts remain the only states that have not adopted the UCCJEA.

Prior to NH’s adoption of the UCCJEA, we were operating under the umbrella of its predecessor, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) which had been adopted in all 50 states. The UCCJA, which was written in 1968, contained broad and sometimes vague language that allowed for courts in different jurisdictions to interpret the statute differently. These difficulties were further complicated by the passage of the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) in 1980 that tangled with the UCCJA in determining jurisdiction for initial custody disputes. Complications arose between states in determining a child’s “home state” and enforcing judgments across state lines, with PKPA and UCCJA having differing standards for determining what custody determination were to be given “full faith and credit” between states. The drafting and passage of the UCCJEA cleans up these conflicts and puts these statutes in order.

Exclusive continuing jurisdiction

 

Under the UCCJEA, once the “home state” of the child has been determined (home state is defined as the state where the child has lived with a parent for six consecutive months prior to the commencement of the proceeding), and child custody orders have been issued, that state has “exclusive continuing jurisdiction” that is entitled to full faith and credit across the country. This prevents other jurisdictions from modifying that order in any way, unless and until the original state has relinquished jurisdiction. This is a large step forward from UCCJA, where different interpretations caused conflicting orders and simultaneous proceedings.

 

Best interests, jurisdiction and the substantive merits

 

Additionally, while the UCCJA was designed to promote “best interest of the child” over whom custody was at issue, including the “best interests” was interpreted by some courts as an summons decide the merits of custody dispute while determining jurisdiction, or even that “best interests” should override jurisdiction considerations That was not the drafter’s intention and as such, the UCCJEA eliminates the term “best interests” so that the jurisdictional issues are clearly separated from the merits of the custody dispute.

 

Enforcement

 

The UCCJEA also sets out a unified system of enforcement mechanisms which were lacking under old law. Under UCCJA, enforcement evolved differently among the states, with, for example, one state requiring a Motion to Enforce or a Motion for Full Faith and Credit to initiate enforcement proceedings, while another required a writ of habeas corpus or a Citation for Contempt. These differences in enforcement resulted in increased cost, decreased certainty in outcome, and long and drawn out enforcement proceedings, allowing one parent to hold on to custody far longer than they should otherwise be able to. In addition to unifying the process, the UCCJEA now provides specific remedies for enforcement including:

 

1)      Procedure for registering a custody determination with another state to allow a party to predetermine whether a custody determination will be recognized in another state,

2)      A swift habeas corpus type remedy for immediate review of custody violations or disputes to allow parents to maintain their awarded visitation or parenting time,

3)      Extraordinary remedy – meaning if the enforcing court is concerned that the parent, who has physical custody of the child, will flee or harm the child, a warrant to take physical possession of the child is available, and

4)      There is now a role for public authorities, such as prosecutors, in the enforcement process. 

 

As to the role of public authorities in the enforcement of custody orders, the Prefatory Note to the UCCJEA states:

If the parties know that public authorities and law enforcement officers are available to help in securing compliance with custody determinations, the parties may be deterred from interfering with the exercise of rights established by court order. The involvement of public authorities will also prove more effective in remedying violations of custody determinations. Most parties do not have the resources to enforce a custody determination in another jurisdiction. The availability of the public authorities as an enforcement agency will help ensure that this remedy can be made available regardless of income level. In addition, the public authorities may have resources to draw on that are unavailable to the average litigant.

These changes will be welcome, both among attorneys and parents, as they now bring a level of certainty to parenting rights and responsibility determinations within New Hampshire and throughout the Country.  It is unfortunate, however, that the only two states yet to adopt the UCCJEA happen to be two of the three states with which we share a border, Massachusetts and Vermont. With any luck, they will follow suit shortly.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin, contributed to this post.

Same-sex marriage and the future of fault grounds in New Hampshire

With the same-sex marriage bill about to come to Governor Lynch’s desk, it is an appropriate time to examine the future of fault grounds in New Hampshire. Currently, New Hampshire has both fault and no-fault grounds for divorce. Only about 1% of divorces in New Hampshire are granted on the basis of fault. Of the nine fault grounds, adultery is the most common.

Adultery in New Hampshire has a very narrow definition. For the purposes of the fault ground statute, under the Blanchflower decision,

“the term “adultery” excludes all non-coital sex acts, whether between persons of the same or opposite gender. The only distinction is that person of the same gender cannot, by definition, engage in the one act that constitutes adultery under the state.”

Furthermore, the court rejected the notion that it should expand the definition of adultery to include sexual acts other than intercourse between a man and a woman because doing so would revise the established definition of adultery beyond recognition, and “it is not the function of the judiciary to provide for present needs by an extension of past legislation.”

I was before a marital master on a temporary hearing the other day, and when the issue of fault grounds came up, he pointed out that if same-sex marriage becomes law, there will be married same-sex couples who, by virtue of their sexuality, cannot commit adultery according to the law (unless they were to cheat with an opposite-sex partner). It is an interesting predicament, and something that the legislature will need to address. The legislature will need to either revise the definition of adultery to include an expanded array of sexual acts between same-sex or opposite-sex couples, or abolish fault grounds all together. Many family law attorneys would argue for the later, pointing out that fault ground divorces cost more, take longer and interfere with parents moving forward with a good co-parenting relationship. Either way, it is time for the legislature to take action on the issue.

New Hampshire House votes to recognize gay marriage

Today the New Hampshire House voted to approve HB 0436, which would legalize gay marriage in New Hampshire, by a vote of 186 to 179. The bill also includes provisions allowing clergy the freedom to determine whether or not to marry a gay couple. The bill will now move to the Senate for debate and vote.

Governor Lynch is opposed to gay marriage, and it is expected that he will veto the legislation. The Union Leader reports that his press secretary Colin Manning said:

The civil unions bill he signed into law prevents discrimination and provides the same legal protections to all New Hampshire families to the extent that is possible under federal law.

Source: Union Leader "NH House endorses gay marriage"

 

New Hampshire House to vote on gay marriage bill

This week the New Hampshire House will vote on HB 436, a bill that would legalize same sex marriage in New Hampshire and allow any civil unioned couples to obtain the legal status of marriage. Currently, Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only states that allow same sex marriage. Several states, including New Hampshire, allow same sex couples to enter into civil unions. According to a recent article in the Union Leader, Govenor Lynch, who supported civil unions, opposes gay marriage.

 

Continuing coverage health insurance laws in New Hampshire

My health insurance coverage is through my spouse’s employer. Will I be able to stay on the health insurance plan after I am divorced?

You may be able to continue coverage through a new law (RSA 415:18, VII b) that became effective on January 1, 2008 that allows a former spouse to continue coverage on the subscriber employee’s group health insurance policy for up to three years following the final decree of divorce. The law applies to both medical and dental coverage. Under the provisions, of the new law, a former spouse remains eligible for coverage until one of the following events occurs, whichever is earliest:

 

1)      Three (3) years from the final decree of divorce or legal separation;

2)      Remarriage of either the covered employee of the former spouse;

3)      Death of the covered employee; or

4)      Such earlier time as provided in the final decree.

 

The former spouse has the right to continue coverage under this law only for so long as the employee subscriber maintains coverage under the same group health insurance plan. If the employee is terminated or leaves employment, the former spouse’s eligibility is not transferrable to the new employer.

 

Unlike COBRA and New Hampshire’s continuation coverage statute which allows additional premiums to be charged, the insurers are required to make the health insurance coverage available without additional premiums as if the divorce had not occurred. This is a key aspect of the law, since often times COBRA premiums are cost prohibitive and unaffordable to the family member who needs to continue coverage. Additionally, the employer is required to continue to contribute to the former spouse’s coverage as if the divorce had not occurred. The court may assign or the parties may agree as to how the employee’s portion of the premiums will be paid, either by the employee, by the former spouse, or shared by the parties.

 

As a caveat, the law applies only to group health insurance policies, and employer plans that are self-insured are not subject to the law’s continuation requirements. Several large private and state and federal government employers, such as Wal-Mart, Fidelity, and the State of New Hampshire, are self-insured and so those with former spouses who work for these self-insured employers will not be able to continue coverage under RSA 458:18, VII.

 

This new law supplements the COBRA benefits and continuing coverage statute that are all ready in place. If a former spouse is not eligible, e.g. remarriage of either party or the court has not allowed coverage under this statute, COBRA benefits may still be available to provide health insurance coverage.