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.

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.

N.H. Supreme Court holds in Salesky that a guardian may maintain a divorce action

On October 8, 2008 the New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion for In the Matter of John Salesky and Jacqueline Salesky. The Court held that a guardian, appointed over the person and estate, may maintain a divorce action on behalf of that person with either the express authority of the Probate Court and as an equitable remedy to prevent an incompetent spouse from having no legal recourse to divorce.  

John and Jacqueline were married in 1983. In 2003, after Jacqueline had left to live with her daughter, John suffered a stroke and then named Jacqueline the co-trustee and co-beneficiary of his trust. John also created separate durable powers of attorney for healthcare, property and financial matters which named Jacqueline as his agent.

 

After John’s stroke, Jacqueline began draining and disbursing significant cash assets. John discovered this and at some time after that John and Jacqueline had an altercation where Jacqueline yelled “John, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, I think I’m going to have to put you in a nursing home”. Sometime in early October 2004, John left Jacqueline and went to live with his brother and sister-in law (the Saleskys).

 

Later in October 2004, John filed a divorce petition on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Jacqueline objected to this and asked for the petition to be dismissed because John was not mentally competent to bring it. In April 2005 John had a full psychiatric evaluation and the report recommended that John receive assistance in making major decisions regarding his life. After this evaluation, the Saleskys petitioned the probate court to appoint them as co-guardians over John’s person and estate. The court denied Jacqueline’s request to appoint her guardian because the parties’ marital status was in the throes of dissolution and therefore appointing her guardian was a conflict of interest.

 

After a three day divorce trial, the court ultimately granted the petition for divorce stating that the Saleskys as co-guardians had the authority to maintain the action on John’s behalf and that irreconcilable differences caused the irremediable breakdown of their marriage.

On appeal, Jacqueline attacked the co-guardians ability to maintain a divorce action on several grounds:

 

1)      Jacqueline argued that the co-guardians did not have the authority to maintain the divorce action and that the superior court interpreted the probate court’s order to confer implied authority upon the Saleskys to maintain the divorce action.

 

The court determined that the plain meaning of the words used in the probate courts orders expressly granted the Saleskys as co-guardians the right to marry and divorce on John’s behalf. To hold otherwise would mean that both John and the Saleskys lacked the ability to exercise those rights.

 

The court also examined the letter of appointment for the Salesky’s where they are specifically granted “ the authority to exercise all of the rights and powers set forth in RSA 464-A:26, I and II” and under section I, specifically requires the guardians to “prosecute or defend actions, claims or proceedings in any jurisdiction for the protection of the estate’s assets.” Therefore, these documents together expressly conferred the right to divorce to the co-guardians.

 

 

2)      Jacqueline then argued that despite the probate court’s order the Saleskys could not prosecute the divorce action because the statute did not grant them that power.

The court looks at the language of the statute stating that RSA 464-A:25 sets out the general powers and duties of a guardian over a person, and RSA 464-A:26 sets out the general powers and duties of a guardian over an estate.

 

Both statutes include a catchall provision that says: “The court may limit the powers of the guardian… or impose additional duties if it deems such action desirable for the best interest of the ward.

 

The plain meaning of the catchall provisions is that the duties are not exclusive. These provisions expressly give the probate court the authority to impose “additional duties.” The only limit upon the additional duties is that those must be “desirable for the best interests of the ward.”

 

3)      Jacqueline also argued that the legislature could not have reasonably intended, as a matter of public policy, to grant probate courts the authority to allow guardians to maintain divorce petitions.

 

The court examined a number of cases holding a competent spouse would have absolute and final control over the marriage if a guardian could not maintain an action for divorce.  That kind of situation leaves the incompetent spouse without adequate legal recourse against potential abuse. In addition, the court points out that these policy concerns are evident in this case because while Jacqueline had withdrawn substantial funds from John’s accounts while acting under a power of attorney, the Saleskys were merely maintaining a divorce action that John had brought before he was found to be incompetent.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.