Norberg v. Norberg: Alimony Cannot Be Waived By Agreement

When negotiating a settlement, it is important to keep in mind that New Hampshire law does not allow parties to waive future alimony. The 1994 case of Norberg v. Norberg is controlling. It explains that although property division is not modifiable, alimony is an entirely different matter. Even if the parties enter into an agreement that expressly waives their right to seek alimony, the court retains the authority to revise its orders under RSA 458:14

How this factors into settlement negotiations will depend on the facts of your case. First, whether you go to trial or reach a settlement, the court will retain the authority to modify alimony. It should be carefully considered when providing the other party with  a larger division of the assets or taking on additional debt in exchange for a reduced term or amount of alimony. Knowledge of the standards for modification, especially in light of the recent Lyons decision, will also be important to come to a knowing and voluntary settlement. 

In Re Lyon: Extension or Renewal of Alimony to be Made as Justice Requires

On May 30, 2014, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion In the Matter of Lyon. This decision clarifies the standard to be applied in requests to extend or renew alimony. 

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorced in May 2007. They entered into a permanent stipulation that was incorporated into their divorce decree that required Husband to pay to Wife $3,000 per month in alimony from January 1, 2007, through June 30, 2007, and $5,000 in monthly alimony from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2012, “or until the death of either party, whichever first occurs.”

A month before the scheduled termination of the alimony, the Wife petitioned for an additional three years. She alleged that her newly diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder necessitated an extension of alimony so that she could afford her medication and finish her education. The Husband filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the Wife had failed to establish an unanticipated or unforeseeable substantial change in circumstances. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the petition.  

The Appeal

The Wife appealed and argued that the trial court erred by applying the standards that govern a motion to modify alimony to her petition to extend. Although the standard to modify required a person to prove that a substantial change in circumstances had occurred since the original award that made the amount of alimony either improper or unfair, she argued that she was not required to meet that test. Instead, she said that she was subject to the same standard as an initial award of alimony.

The Holding

The Supreme Court held that when a party seeks to extend or renew, either in modified or unmodified form, “the burden is upon the party in whose favor the order is to run to establish that justice requires a renewal or extension, and if so, what justice requires as to amount[,] . . . in the light of all the circumstances then existing.”

The Takeaway

The standard articulated in the Lyons decision will be easier to meet for alimony recipients as opposed to a substantial change in circumstance test.  This has the potential to create a chilling effect a person’s willingness to agree to pay alimony as one can be less certain of the end date for the payments. Even so, the recipient must still prove that justice requires an extension. While the facts do not require a substantial change in circumstances, it seems likely that the trial court would still examine all of the circumstances to determine why, if short term alimony was awarded, the recipient has not put him or herself into a position to be self-supporting.

 

Unmarried Parents Get Equal Protection for New Hampshire Appeals

Miller v. Todd, a parenting case between two parties who were never married, raised the issue of whether Supreme Court Rule 3 is unconstitutional because it treats married and unmarried parents differently for the purposes of an appeal. At the time, only parents who were married were entitled to a mandatory appeal from an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities. A mandatory appeal provides that the case “shall be accepted by the supreme court for review on the merits.” Although an appeal from a final divorce decree or final decree on legal separation is a mandatory appeal, an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities between unmarried parents was not.

In Miller v. Todd the Supreme Court declined to address the issue by declaring it moot. In other words, because the Supreme Court had accepted the father’s discretionary appeal for review, the issue was purely academic because he had not been harmed by having his appeal declined. The Court noted, however, that “any consideration regarding amending Rule 3 should be accomplished in accordance with the rule-making procedures set forth in Supreme Court Rule 51, thereby providing the public, the bench and the bar an opportunity to offer comments and suggestions.”

On April 4, 2014, the Supreme Court adopted new rules, including an amendment to Supreme Court Rule 3 that now provides a mandatory appeal for “the first final order issued in, or arising out of, a domestic relations matter filed under RSA Title XLIII (RSA chapters 457 to 461-A).” The comments to the new rules identify the change results from the claim raised in Miller v. Todd that “providing for mandatory review of appeals involving married parents but discretionary review of appeals involving non-married parents raises constitutional concerns."

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.

Modification of child support in New Hampshire

After a final order of child support is entered, either party may seek a modification at any time based on a substantial change in circumstances that has made the original order unfair and improper. A party may also seek a modification if more than three years has passed since the date of the final order without a need to show a substantial change in circumstances.  

Cases are always fact specific, and your situation may be different then the examples laid out here. Situations vary by income, expenses, new children and stepchildren, distance between the homes, or special needs of a child. The court hearing your case will examine the specific factual circumstances of your family to determine whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances that make the original order improper or unfair. Therefore, it is important to succinctly and accurately make your case for the modification.

Examples of situations that could warrant modification include:

  • Involuntary loss of employment.
  • Reduction or increase in income
  • Change in residential responsibility or parenting time.
  • Child graduating from high school or turning 18, while younger still children still require child support.
  • A parent returning to school. In Re Lynn.

There are several circumstances that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that modification of child support should be denied. Some of the circumstances include:

  • A parent’s relocation itself, without more evidence, is not a substantial change in circumstances sufficient to modify child support. In Re Adams.
  • The remarriage of either party does not as a matter of law warrant a modification of child support. Peterson v. Buxton.
  • Absent other circumstances, the expected growth of a child and normal cost of living increases are not substantial chances or special circumstances that justify modification. Morrill v. Millard.

 

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. 

In the Matter of Reena D: Guardian bears burden of proof in termination of guardianship established by consent

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion In the Matter of Reena D. on December 28, 2011. 

The Facts

In 2002, mother and father petitioned the court to grant guardianship of their twenty-two month old daughter Reena to the paternal grandfather and his wife. The purpose of the guardianship was to allow mother and father to travel to India to start a tile business and visit with the mother’s family. The court appointed the grandfather and his wife as Reena’s guardians.

In 2003, the grandfather died and his wife was appointed as sole guardian of Reena. Later that year, the mother and father petitioned to terminate the guardianship, and then entered into a temporary stipulation with the guardian allowing the guardianship to continue while the father obtained an alcohol assessment. A hearing on the motion to terminate would be held two months after the submission of the assessment.

Six months later, the guardian moved to dismiss the motion to terminate, and the court denied the termination of the guardianship without prejudice. In 2007, the parents renewed their motion to terminate the guardianship. A trial was conducted in 2009, where the father submitted the required alcohol assessment on the first day. The trial court placed the burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, on the parents to show “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision [was] no longer necessary to provide for [their daughter’s] essential physical and safety needs” and that terminating the guardianship would not “adversely affect [their daughter’s] psychological well-being.” The court determined that the parents had failed to meet their burden and denied the termination of the guardianship.   

The Appeal

The father appealed the decision denying the termination of the guardianship over his daughter. He argues that the trial court violated his state and federal constitutional rights by requiring him and his wife to bear the burden of proof to terminate the guardianship. He asserts that it is the respondent who should have the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the guardianship was necessary to provide for Reena’s essential physical and safety needs and to prevent significant psychological harm to her.

The Holding

In a guardianship established by consent, the guardian bears the burden of proof by clear and convincing  “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 court determined that a fit parent, that is one who has not been adjudicated unfit, is entitled to the Troxel presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interests of their child. Thus, where a guardianship has been established by consent, a parent remains a fit parent and it is the guardian who must carry the burden of proof articulated in RSA 463:15, V. The court held that the clear and convincing standard applies, which was in keeping with other holdings of the court in disputes between parents and nonparents over custody of a minor such as In the Matter of R.A. & J.M. and In re Guardianship of Nicholas P.

Because the trial court applied the incorrect burden of proof, the Supreme Court vacated the order denying the termination of the guardianship and remanded it for further proceedings.

The Takeaway

When establishing a guardianship, the parent who consents to the guardianship will have an easier path to terminating the guardianship.

An interesting issue will occur for a guardianship established by consent and adjudication. It is often the case where one parent consents to the guardianship, while the other objects and the guardianship is granted over the objection. In a proceeding to terminate the guardianship, the parent who contested the guardianship must carry the burden of proof, where the parent who consented shifts the burden to the guardian. Having different burdens in the same matter will make things interesting.  

In the Matter of Mason: Debt to a former spouse is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorced, and the final decree directs Wife to pay 50% of Husband’s 2006 taxes. Wife later files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing her obligation under the divorce decree in the bankruptcy petition. She lists Husband as a co-debtor on the tax debt, and as a creditor holding an unsecured non-priority claim. Wife received a discharge from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Each spouse petitioned the IRS for “innocent spouse” relief from their federal income tax liability for 2006. The Wife’s petition was granted, the Husband’s denied.

Husband filed a motion for contempt, asking the trial court to compel the wife to pay the obligation to him as ordered in the divorce decree. The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that:

[Wife] sought to have her debt to [Husband] discharged in bankruptcy. Toward [that] end, in her bankruptcy petition [Wife] noticed [Husband] as a creditor for “2010: divorce settlement” in the amount of the original debt to the IRS. [Husband] was duly noticed that he was listed as a creditor and had the opportunity to litigate the issue in the bankruptcy court. [Husband] was granted a bankruptcy and the debt was discharged.

The Appeal

Husband appealed, arguing that: 1) the trial court erred as a matter of law when it found that Wife’s obligation to pay 50% of his 2006 federal income taxes had been discharged in bankruptcy because he failed to litigate in the bankruptcy court that her obligation was non-dischargeable; and, 2) that the trial court erred as a matter of law and unsustainably exercised its discretion when it declined to award him attorney’s fees and costs.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion on November 28, 2012. 

The Holding

Wife’s debt to Husband to pay 50% of his 2006 taxes was automatically non-dischargeable under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(15) as a debt to a former spouse. Even if the Wife was ordered to make payments on the obligation to a third party instead of directly to Husband, it is still a debt to the spouse and therefore non-dischargeable.

The trial court did not err when it declined to award Husband attorney’s fees. The general rule in New Hampshire is that each party must bear their own costs in litigation. A prevailing party may only recover attorney’s fees when it is authorized by statute, there is an agreement between the parties allocating or awarding attorney fees, or there is an established judicial exception to the general rule. Exceptions to the general rule include:

(W)here an individual is forced to seek judicial assistance to secure a clearly defined and established right if bad faith can be established; where litigation is instituted  or unnecessarily prolonged through a party’s oppressive, vexatious, arbitrary, capricious or bad faith conduct; as compensation for those who are forced to litigate in order to enjoy what a court has already decreed; and for those who are forced to litigate against an opponent whose position is patently unreasonable.

The Supreme Court noted that although it held that Wife’s position was erroneous under the law, her position was not patently unreasonable. Therefore, Husband was not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees.

The Takeaway

Whether a financial obligation to a former spouse is incurred by an agreement approved by the court or by court order, that obligation cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Plan on the obligation surviving the discharge, and ask your bankruptcy attorney whether the bankruptcy court can restructure the repayment of the debt. 

In Re Lister: No credit on child support for SSI benefits received from child's disability

In May 2011, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its opinion In the Matter of Richard Lister and Marianne Lister.

The Facts

Father and mother have a disabled adult son who resides with mother. Doctors indicate that the son will always be dependent on others for care. Due to his disability, the son receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) of about $450 per month (this amount is reduced from the maximum benefit of $674 due to child support that he receives and/or government housing payments). Pursuant to RSA 461-A:14, IV, the son, as a disabled adult, is entitled to child support.

In 2010, the mother filed for a modification of child support, and requested an increase in child support. The father, who did not dispute that his son was eligible for child support, requested a dollar for dollar credit on his child support payments, citing In the Matter of State & Taylor and In the Matter of Angley–Cook & Cook.

The trial court modified the father’s child support obligation, refusing the grant a dollar for dollar credit, and increased the amount of child support. The trial court distinguished the SSI benefits, pointing out that the son is the source of the benefits and not the father.

The Appeal 

The father appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that State & Taylor and Angley-Cook & Cook are controlling, and require the trial court to grant him a dollar for dollar credit, regardless of whether the benefits derive from the child or the parent.

The Holding

The trial court did not err in refusing to grant a dollar for dollar deduction in child support from son’s SSI, because the SSI benefits derive from the child and not the father. The SSI payments replace some of what the son would have earned but for his disability, instead of replacing lost income of the father.

The Takeaway

While parents may receive a credit on child support when the child receives social security benefits derived from the parent, there is no deduction for benefits based on the child’s disabilities. The Supreme Court urges the trial court to consider that increases in child support can affect the child’s eligibility for SSI, as child support is considered in calculating entitlement and need.

Raybeck and Raybeck: Providing a definition of cohabitation

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorce after forty-two years of marriage in 2005. The divorce decree divides the property and requires the Husband to pay $25,000 per year for ten years. However, the decree provided that alimony would stop if the Wife cohabitated with “an unrelated adult male.”

In 2010, the Wife moved from her home, and rented it to reduce her expenses. She moved into the upper level of a single family home that was owned by a man she met through an online dating service. The man lived on the lower floor, and they had shared space on the middle floor of the home. The Wife did not pay rent, but she did pay $300 per month for food and often cooked for him.

The Husband stopped paying alimony when he learned of the move, and Wife sought enforcement of the alimony obligation. The trial court ruled that the Wife was not cohabitating under the terms of the decree and enforced the alimony obligation.

The Appeal

The Husband appealed the trial court’s order, initially arguing that the trial court erred in concluding that the Wife was not cohabitating. However, at oral argument the Husband abandoned that argument, and instead argued that the trial court did not a have a workable definition of cohabitation and urged the court to adopt a standard.

The Holding

The Supreme Court defines cohabitation as “a relationship between persons resembling that of a marriage.” Whether two people are cohabitating will depend on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. The Supreme Court offered guidance on factors to be considered:

  • Whether the couple is living together continually
  • What the financial arrangements between the couple are and to the extent that they are entangled, including whether there are shared expenses, to what extent one supports the other, whether there are shared investments or retirement planning, if the couple have joint bank accounts, and whether there are life insurance policies naming the other.
  • The extent of the personal relationship, including the intimacy of the connection, shared vacations, shared friends and social connections, and a sexual relationship (although not necessarily dispositive)
  • Whether the couple share and enjoy each other’s personal property, such as household furnishings, appliances, vehicles, and personal items, such as toiletries or clothing
  • The age of the couple may be an important consideration, which may give more or less weight to the support of one by the other and estate planning providing for children of prior relationships
  • Whether friends, family or the community view the couple was engaging in a personal intimate relationship

The Takeaway

The guidance provided in this case should assist a trial court in determining whether a coupld is cohabitating, even though the facts and circumstances in each particular case. Perhaps the old adage “if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck” is most appropriate.   
 

Elter-Nodvin v. Nodvin: Change in beneficary does not violate anti-hypothecation order

The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently issued an interesting opinion in the matter of Elter-Nodvin v. Nodvin. It is not a traditional family law case, ie divorce or parenting, but rather a constructive trust matter. Nevertheless, the holding has ramifications in the family division.

The Facts

Husband files for divorce from wife. Family court issues an anti-hypothecation order, which restrains the parties “from selling, transferring, encumbering, hypothecating, concealing or in any other manner whatsoever disposing of any property, real or personal, belonging to either or both of them.” While divorce is pending, husband changes his beneficiary on his life insurance and retirement accounts from Wife to their children. Husband dies before divorce is accomplished. Wife sues children in Superior Court seeking to impose a constructive trust to recover the proceeds from the life insurance and retirement accounts. Superior Court dismisses wife’s claims against children.

The Appeal

The wife appealed the trial court’s decision dismissing her petition, arguing that the husband’s change in beneficiaries from wife to children violated the anti-hypothecation order and required the imposition of a constructive trust in favor of the wife over the proceeds. The wife also argues that the husband violated the order when he changed beneficiaries because those actions hindered the trial court’s ability to distribute the assets according to the purpose of the anti-hypothecation order.

The Holding

The court holding is interesting, and contrary to the conventional wisdom that changing beneficiaries on insurance or retirement accounts violated the anti-hypothecation order. Instead, the Supreme Court declared that the plain language of the anti-hypothecation order that required the parties to refrain from disposing of property allowed the husband to make the changes to the beneficiaries, and in no way impeded the family division from making an order requiring the husband to name the wife as beneficiary. The Supreme Court reasoned that the wife did not possess a vested property interest, and absent a property interest, there could be no violation of the order. Therefore, the wife could not base the imposition of a constructive trust on the alleged violation of the anti-hypothecation order.   

The Takeaway

At a temporary hearing, or in a temporary agreement, it is important to secure an order that each party shall name the other as the beneficiary on their existing life insurance, retirement plans, and/or survivor benefits and shall make no changes to those designations while the divorce is pending.

Contempt of Court

Throughout my years practicing law and in my role as a guardian ad litem, I often hear misconceptions about contempt. Usually I hear statements along the lines of “I don’t want a criminal record” or “if I am found in contempt I will be arrested.” This post is intended to dispel some of these misunderstandings and to set the record straight.

Contempt can be civil or criminal, direct or indirect. The difference between civil or criminal lies in the purpose of the punishment. Direct or indirect contempt contrasts between acts committed either in the presence or outside of the presence of the court.

Civil Contempt

A finding of civil contempt results in an order that is remedial, coercive and for the benefit of the other party. The punishment is intended to force the contemnor’s compliance with court orders. Examples of the consequences of a contempt finding include money fines, orders directing compliance with the court orders, or even an indefinite jail sentence until the contempt is cured. It is often said that the contemnor “holds the key to the jail in his pocket” because curing the contempt will set him free. In family matters, motions for contempt are often brought for failure to pay child support, failure to abide by the parenting schedule, or selling or encumbering property in violation of a non-hypothecation order. Jail is a remedy of last resort, and one that usually only follows repeated, intentional refusals to abide by court orders or extreme behavior. The court will usually exhaust other remedies, such as payment of the other parties’ attorney’s fees, before sending a person to jail for civil contempt. A civil finding of contempt does not appear on a person’s criminal record.

Criminal Contempt

In contrast, a person who has been found in criminal contempt does not hold the keys to the jailhouse, and remedying the contempt will not set him free. The punishment is punitive, and intended to protect and preserve the dignity and authority of the court. Indirect criminal contempt proceedings must generally follow to procedural formalities of criminal proceedings. The defendant is entitled to reasonable notice, providing a date and time for the proceeding and warning that the contempt is considered criminal. The prosecutor must prove the elements of contempt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the contemnor is entitled to counsel and holds the right against self-incrimination. If the court intends to impose a sentence of greater than six months, the defendant has the right to a jury trial.

An example of criminal contempt, and the confusion that can result between criminal and civil contempt, is the New Hampshire case of Mortgage Specialists v. Davey. Mortgage Specialists sued the defendants for violation of trade secrets. Following a preliminary injunction, the defendants destroyed documents in violation of the court order. The court found the defendants in contempt, believing that they had thumbed their noses at the trial court’s authority and thwarted the dignity of the process, and issued penalties including attorney’s fees, fines and a penalty of three times the amount of profits unjustly reaped from the violation of trade secrets. The Supreme Court vacated the finding because the defendants were not provided notice that the contempt proceedings would be criminal.

Indirect Contempt

Indirect contempt is conduct that takes place outside of the presence of the court. The court does not have first-hand knowledge. Instead, the acts of contempt must be proved through evidence. An interesting case that distinguishes direct contempt versus indirect contempt is Kristen McGuire v. Suzanne Collins. In McGuire, a litigant in a custody matter arrived at the courthouse smelling of alcohol. The court security officer approached the litigant, and a state trooper performed a preliminary breath test. The results were not provided to the litigant, or her attorney. However, when she appeared before the court for the hearing, the judge informed her that she had blown a .20, well above the legal limit. However, the litigant displayed no disorderly behavior in the courtroom. The judge sentenced to litigant to 30 days in jail for direct, criminal contempt for appearing before the court in an inebriated state. However, the sentence was overturned by the Superior Court following a filing for a writ of habeus corpus because the family division judge had not personally observed the elements of contempt. Instead, the court had to rely on the observations of the court staff and the preliminary breath test conducted by the state trooper to prove the elements of contempt. Therefore, the court did not have direct knowledge and could not conduct summary proceedings resulting in the immediate incarceration.

Direct Contempt

Direct contempt takes place in the presence of the court where the judge personally observes all of the elements of contempt. The following is a perfect example of direct contempt from Maryland in the case of Patrick Smith v. State of Maryland:

THE DEFENDANT: What is the maximum on contempt, sir?

THE COURT: What is the maxim um on contempt? If I am going to give you in excess of six months, I believe I have to give you a jury trial, is that correct . . . ?

[STATE’S ATTORNEY]: Yes.

THE COURT: Mr. Smith, I am not going to give you in excess of six months.

THE DEFENDANT: Let me tell you something.

THE COURT: What?

THE DEFENDANT: You say you won’t give me in excess of six months.

THE COURT: Yes.

THE DEFENDANT: You know what? You have been sitting up there in the trial in every hearing I have had for this far, right? From day one, you have been very prejudiced to the defense. I asked you, right, a while ago, you tried to skip out on even bringing forth an allegation. You say it is only a bald allegation. I am not asking you to believe me. I am asking you to bring forth the witnesses in this case who could testify --

THE COURT: I asked you if you had anything you want to say as to what sentence the Court should impose --

THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You know what? You can give me six more months, motherfucker, for sucking my dick, you punk ass b itch. You should have a white robe on, motherfucker, instead of a black. Fuck you.

THE COURT: I find you in contempt again.

THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you in contempt again.

THE COURT: I find you three times in contempt --

THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you. And fuck.

THE COURT: On each charge, the Court will impose a sentence of five months to run consecutive to each other and consecutive to any sentence you are now serving or obligated to serve.

THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You better leave now, you, Ku Klux Klan.

Other examples of direct contempt include assaulting another person in the courtroom or refusing to testify when ordered to do so. When direct contempt occurs, the court may skirt procedural formalities required of indirect contempt in light of the court’s direct knowledge of the contempt. The word “summarily” does not refer to the swiftness of the punishment, but rather the dispensing with the formalities that accompany a conventional trial such as service of process, notice of hearing, and submission of evidence. Instead, the court must give the contemnor oral notice of the contempt observed, an opportunity to speak in his defense, where after the court may issue a finding of guilty and pronounce sentence.  

Thompson v. D'Errico: Order your transcript for your appeal!

The Facts

            The plaintiff, Linda Thompson, filed a domestic violence petition against the defendant, Christopher D’Errico requesting an order of protection. After an evidentiary hearing, the Court issued a final order of protection, and made findings that the defendant had on a daily basis sent text messages to the plaintiff using “extraordinarily foul language”, that the defendant had made reference to a having a loaded shotgun, and that a family friend had to interfere to stop the defendant from putting his hands around the plaintiff neck. The defendant moved for reconsideration, arguing that the evidence did not support a finding that he posed a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety. The trial court conducted a further hearing, and issued an order detailing the text messages sent by the defendant at extremely inconvenient hours, using such language as “bills asshole die bitch,” sent in the days leading up to the filing of the domestic violence petition. The court found these texts to be a “credible present threat, considering the defendant’s previous threat of the loaded shotgun and the defendant’s previous attempt to put his hands around the plaintiff’s neck.”

The Appeal

The defendant appealed the order, arguing that:

(1) his non-threatening foul language is protected by the First Amendment;

(2) there is no evidence to support the plaintiff’s allegations against him;

(3) the text messages might have been sent by a third party having access to his phone;

(4) the trial court erred by admitting evidence of certain text messages; and

(5) the evidence does not support the finding of a credible present threat to the plaintiff’s   safety. 

The Holding

            The evidence supported a finding of a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety. The Supreme Court came to this conclusion because the defendant, who was the appealing party, failed to provide a transcript, and absent a transcript, the court must assume that the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s ruling. The court refused to consider other questions presented on appeal for this same reason, finding that the defendant had failed to demonstrate that he had preserved issues for appeal without a transcript evidencing his objections to evidence.

            The First Amendment does not protect the defendant’s non-threatening foul language because the definition of harassment, which requires repeated communications with offensively coarse language that is made with the purpose to annoy or alarm, is narrowly tailored to the illegal communication it seeks to prevent.

The Takeaway

            Provide a transcript for your appeal. The transcript is the written record of what happened during your hearing or trial. Without a transcript, the Supreme Court has no way of knowing whether you brought an issue to the attention of the trial court for consideration. For example, did you object when the other side submitted a tax return to the judge? If your appeal alleges that the trial court improperly allowed the tax return into evidence, the Supreme Court needs to confrim that you objected and preserved that issue for their review. Similarly, without a transcript, the Supreme Court must assume that the conclusions or findings reached by the trial court were supported by the evidence. In this case, the defendant failed to provide a transcript, and many of his arguments brought before the Supreme Court, including whether the trial court had sufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that he presented a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety, failed for that reason. The results might have been different if he had ordered and paid for the transcript.

            As the Occupy Wall Street movement recently learned, free speech as limits. The statute defining harassment requires a repeated course of conduct, where communication occurs at extremely inconvenient hours or with extremely coarse language. The calls must also be made with the purpose to annoy or alarm. Harassment cannot be conjured from a single call made to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Here, the defendant sent repeated texts, at inconvenient hours, and with extremely coarse language. The texts were clearly designed the alarm the plaintiff, rather than expressive conduct made for a legitimate purpose. This communication is the exact type of illegal behavior the statute is designed to prevent.

NH Supreme Court requests amicus briefs on topic of right to counsel in abuse and neglect cases

Since July 2011, indigent parents accused of abuse or neglect have had to manage the court system without an attorney. Recent legislative changes removed the statutory requirement contained in RSA 169-C:10, II(a) that counsel be appointed for requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents. However, the question still remains whether the parents have a constitutional right to counsel under the New Hampshire constitution.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is now faced with that question, and has called for amicus briefs or memorandum on the following question:

Does the Due Process Clause of the New Hampshire Constitution (Part 1, Articles 2 and 15) or the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution require the appointment of counsel for an indigent parent from whom the State seeks to take custody of a minor child based on allegations of neglect or abuse? 

I believe the civil right to counsel for parents accused of abuse or neglect is a fundamental right, as basic as the right to an attorney in criminal matters. My New Hampshire Bar News opinion and blog post provide a more detailed analysis. I am interested to hear your opinion so feel free to leave a comment. 

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.

Coming Changes and Challenges to New Hampshire Parents' Right to Counsel in Abuse and Neglect Proceedings

New Hampshire has long recognized that a parent's right to raise and care for one's child is a fundamental constitutional right. In recognition of that right, there has been a statutory right to counsel for parent's facing termination of parental rights proceedings and in abuse and neglect cases. In addition to the statutory authority, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has held that stepparents who are accused of abuse or neglect, and are household members, have the right to counsel if they cannot afford one.

However, the state's budget, which has passed the house and the senate and Governor Lynch has announced his intention to allow it to become law without his signature, changes the statutory authority and the ability of the state to pay for appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases. HB2, Section 79 strikes the portion of RSA 169-C:10, II(a) mandating the court appointment of an attorney for accused, indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings. On June 23, 2011, Judge Kelly, the administrative judge for the Family Division, issued an administrative order that orders as follows:

  • Until June 30, 2011, attorneys shall continue to be appointed to represent an indigent parent only where mandated by RSA169-C:10, II(a), i.e. in cases where an indigent parent is alleged to have neglected or abused his or her child.
  • Effective July 1, 2011, counsel shall not be appointed for indigent parents in abuse and neglect cases under RSA chapter 169-C.
  • Effective July 1, 2011, all appointments of counsel, including existing appointments, to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect cases shall terminate upon the issuance of the dispositional order pursuant to RSA 169-C:19.

Though the legislature may believe that they can simply defund and eliminate the statute requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents, I would argue that they are wrong. In addition to the statutory protections that have been afforded to indigent parents in abuse and neglect case, the New Hampshire Constitution protects parents. The Shelby Court held that "due process requires the appointment of counsel to a stepparent accused of abuse or neglect under RSA chapter 169-C." The Court recognized that "abuse and neglect proceedings can harm, and in some cases irreparably damage, family and marital relationships." While the Court has consistently held that a natural parent's role in family life is a fundamental liberty interest under the constitution, due to the statutory protections requiring the appointment of counsel for accused parents, the Court has not yet been called on to recognize the due process right of a parent to counsel in abuse and neglect proceedings. However, given the holding that accused stepparents are entitled counsel, it is difficult to imagine that a parent would not have the same due process right. 

What happens from here? I expect that a constitutional challenge will be brought, in one of a variety of methods, and the Supreme Court will be called upon to recognize a parent's constitutional right to counsel in abuse and neglect proceedings. Until then, parents will have to navigate the abuse and neglect system without advice or counsel and try their best to advocate for themselves and their children.

New Hampshire Supreme Court to release opinion in New Hampshire home-school case tomorrow

Tomorrow, March 16, 2011, the New Hampshire Supreme Court will issue its opinion in the New Hampshre homeschooling case. The case of Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch has grabbed national headlines and sparked much debate about the right to home-school. In this matter, a divorced mother and father could not agree on whether their daughter should be home-schooled by the mother,  and so a trial was held and a judge issued an order requiring the child to attend public school. The mother appealed, arguing, among other issues, that she has a consitutional right to home school her child.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this matter on January 6, 2011. The justices asked some hard questions and made some interesting points, including:

  • On the issue of a constitutional right to home-school, Justice Lynn asked the mother's attorney: The cases you cite were state v. parent, but in this case the state has been forced to settle a dispute between to parents, is there not a difference?
  • Justice Dalianis questioned whether the Court needed to decide the constitutional issue of home schooling if the court decides that the trial court's order was a modification subject to the Muchmore standard.
  • Justice Duggan asked the mother's attorney how schooling is a religious right. Further, "if there is no constitutional right to home-school, do you lose?"
  • Justice Conboy distinguished residential and decision making responsibility, and questioned whether the modification standard applies when the court has to settle a decision making dispute. She asked, "if the parents have joint decision making and they do not agree, then what happens?"

Check here on March 16th for the opinion. For links to the parents' appellate briefs, click here.

Leone v. Leone: Testifying Telephonically

On February 25, 2011, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion in the matter of Leone v. Leone, which deals with a court’s discretion to hear telephonic testimony. In this case, the parties were a married couple with three children who resided together in Mississippi until the mother moved with the children to New Hampshire. About a month after the mother moved to New Hampshire, she filed a domestic violence petition requesting a restraining order against the father.

At a hearing on the restraining order, the mother appeared in person with an attorney and the father appeared telephonically with his attorney present in the courtroom. After the mother’s testimony, the father requested, through his attorney, that the Court allow him to testify telephonically. The court denied the request, and stated, on the record:

I’m having a problem with that. I do not usually allow people to testify telephonically. I have to judge their demeanor, their credibility. If they’re not in front of me, how can I do that?

 

I’m not going to allow it. I do not allow telephonic testimony. Never have, never will.

The father appealed, questioning whether the court erred in denying the father’s request to testify telephonically. The Supreme Court held that the court did err, concluding that a blanket exclusion of all telephonic testimony was an abuse of discretion. Instead, the court should have weighed and considered the specific circumstances of the case that would call for telephonic testimony, including:

  • the ability of the witness to travel to New Hampshire, weighing feasibility and cost
  • the nature of the proceedings
  • the consequences facing the party/witness
  • whether the court has the technical capability of accommodating such a request
  •  whether the other party objected to the telephonic testimony
  • alternative methods of testimony, such as teleconferencing or an offer of proof through an attorney, would

In short, the Supreme Court determined that there had to be an objective basis for denying the telephonic testimony. An interesting caution in the case is the note that the Leone case does not hold whether the telephonic testimony would be admissible, and sites the Kansas case of In the Estate of Broderick. That argument is left for another day.  

Appeal in the New Hampshire homeschooling case: Kurowski & Voydatch

Back in September 2009, the so-called New Hampshire homeschooling case (In the Matter of Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch) grabbed national headlines when the court ordered the parties’ child to attend public school instead of continuing with home schooling. Home school supporters decried the decision, arguing that the order trampled the mother’s constitutional rights to raise and educate her child as she saw fit. The problem with that line of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that the child has two parents, not one. As an equal decision maker, the father has rights too. When the parents could not agree on matters of education and religion, the family court decided.

The case is currently on appeal at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and headed to oral arguments on January 6, 2011 at 9:00 am. The parties have submitted their briefs, including an Amicus Curiae brief from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).  

The mother, through her attorney John Simmons, filed an appeal and brief with the New Hampshire Supreme Court, asking the court to consider the following questions:

 

  • Whether the trial court erred in modifying a parenting plan, to order a home schooled child to attend public school, by considering the “best interests of the child”, where none of the statutory circumstances permitting modification, as set forth in RSA 461-A:11, were present, and the court made such finding.
  •  Whether the trial court erroneously concluded that it was in the best interests of a home-schooled child to be sent to public school where the court’s decision was based on its own definition of the purpose of education that was unsupported by RSA 461-A:6,I or by any other law.
  •  Whether the trial court’s decision should be reversed because it committed plain error in relying on the opinion testimony of a guardian ad litem who was not qualified as an expert and who’s opinion was not based on a rational perception within the meaning of Rule 701 of the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school to expose her to diverse points of view was erroneous because it violated the fundamental parental right to control a child’s education guaranteed by the United States Constitution, where the evidence showed that the child was already getting a superior education and the State’s purported goal could be achieved by a less restrictive means.
  •  Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school because she was too rigid in her religious beliefs was erroneous because it interfered with the child’s right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school should be reversed because it relief on the testimony of a guardian ad litem who was biased against the religion practiced by the child and her mother.

The father, through his attorney Joshua Gordon, submitted a reply brief. HSLDA submitted an amicus curiae brief. Stay tuned for a blog post reviewing the arguments and briefs.

In Re Martin: NH Supreme Court weighs in on relocation and dispute resolution

 

The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently issued an opinion In the Matter of Patricia Martin and Michael Martin on the issues of relocation and language in the parenting plan requiring either party to seek neutral third party assistance in resolving disputes prior to filing with the court.  

Neutral Third Party Requirement

 

The court form standard parenting plans include language under the “methods for resolving disputes” paragraph that require parents to seek assistance in resolving disputes before heading to court. Specifically, the standard language reads:

In the future, if the parents have a disagreement about parenting issues, the parents shall try to work it out in the best interest of the child(ren). If the parents are unable to work out the disagreement, they shall seek the help of a neutral third party to assist them. Only if the parents are unable to work out the disagreement after seeking third party assistance will they ask the court to decide the issue.

On appeal, the mother argued that the court use of the word “shall” interferes with the parties’ rights to access the courts to resolve disputes. The court disagreed and stated that while the New Hampshire Constitution “provides that all citizens have a right to the redress of their actionable injuries … the article does not prohibit all impairments of the right of access to the courts.” In fact,  reasonable restrictions for the filing of lawsuits do not automatically violate the constitutional guarantee to speedy justice.

 

            The court reasoned that the third party assistance provision did not impinge on the mother’s rights because, as the court stated: “It imposes no specific requirement that the assistance of a neutral third party must be of any particular nature or duration or even that the third party must have actually provided assistance. It permits either party to seek judicial relief, as long as that party demonstrates that the parents first sought the assistance of a neutral third party.”

 

            In practice, the discussion in the Martin case is something to keep in mind when entering into a parenting plan. If you do not want to restrict yourself or the other parent in such a way, you need to find alternative language to agree upon or persuade the court to order. Also, if you all ready have this language in your parenting plan, you are required to seek out some manner of neutral third party assistance to try to resolve the dispute before you may file. If you do not, your petition may be dissmissed until you comply with the requirement.

 

Relocation

 

Relocation is a hot topic these days. Families, often for jobs, are on the move. New Hampshire law provides that a parent seeking permission to relocate bears the initial burden of demonstrating that the relocation is for a legitimate purpose and that the proposed location is reasonable in light of that purpose. Should the moving party meet that burden, the other parent must prove that the proposed relocation is not in the best interests of the children. The trial court had denied the mother’s request to relocate, finding that the mother’s purpose for moving was to

avoid ongoing interaction with the father and to “get away from [him].”

 

On appeal the mother argued that the statutory term “legitimate” means she only need demonstrate a “subjectively legitimate reason” for relocating and that the proposed relocation must only be objectively reasonable in light of that purpose. The court never answered whether this proposed interpretation of the statutory word “legitimate” was proper because the mother’s argument failed even under her own proposed interpretation. Even if the court accepted the mother’s definition of “legitimate” as a subjective determination, upon the facts of the case, she could not prevail because the trial court had found that the move was not a legitimate purpose, a legal conclusion that she did not challenge.

 

What does this mean? The court left the discussion of the meaning of a legitimate purpose for another day.

                                         

The Berg Case: Parents right to access medical records v. child's right to privacy

A principal obligation of parenthood is to claim certain rights and privileges on behalf of one’s child, as well as make decisions the child is considered incompetent to make on their own. Whether a five-year-old should have an elective tonsillectomy, for example, is more a decision for the child’s parent then for the child herself. Likewise, if a doctor engaged in malpractice while caring for one’s child, the parent would bring the claim on behalf of the injured minor.

However, the water becomes murkier when dealing with children’s medical records and a parent’s access to those records. In the Matter of Berg v. Berg, the father demanded access to his children’s medical records, arguing that his legal rights as a parent overrides the children’s right to privacy. The children’s therapists and the guardian ad litem moved to seal the children’s records, which the trial court denied. The case went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court to answer the following questions: 

1.      Do children have a right to privacy for their medical records and communications?

2.      Does the court have the authority to seal the therapy records of the parties’ minor children when one parent demands access to the records for purposes of litigation?

3.      Should the court have the authority to seal the therapy records of minor children when the parents are in conflict about the release and access to such records.

The Supreme Court overruled the trial court, and answered the three questions in the affirmative. The court found that when parents enter into an acrimonious, contested custody battle, the personal interests of the parents could become adverse to the children’s interests.  The court went on:

Where the privilege is claimed on behalf of the parent rather than that of the child, or where the welfare and interest of the minor will not be protected, a parent should not be permitted to either claim the privilege or, for that matter, to waive it.

The court further justified their holding by noting that, under some circumstances, allowing the parent unfettered access to the child’s therapy records may deny the children the right to effective medical care by destroying the “atmosphere of confidence and trust” that is fundamental for effective therapeutic counseling. 

It is also worth noting that while a parent with potentially conflicting motives cannot assert or waive the privilege on behalf of the child, a neutral GAL may do so. Furthermore, a sufficiently mature child can claim the privilege on their own behalf. In determining whether or not to allow a minor to assert the privilege, at the trial judge’s discretion, the court may consider 1) the child’s age, intelligence and maturity, 2) the intensity with which the child advances his interest, and 3) whether their stated preference is based upon improper influences.

For parents wondering, what does this mean to me, the inquiry the court will make when deciding whether a parent may access their children’s medical records will be whether allowing the parent the right to assert or waive the therapist-client privilege on behalf of their child is in that child’s best interests? If allowing such access would interfere with the child’s ability to succeed in meaningful, productive therapy then it would not be in his best interests and the parent may not waive the privilege on their behalf. If, on the other hand, there is no risk that such disclosure would harm the child, the parents retain the right to waive or claim the privilege.

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

Sukerman: Accidental disability benefits are marital property subject to equitable division

In the last session of 2009, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its opinion In the Matter of Michele Sukerman and William Sukerman, in which the court held that accidental disability pension benefits are subject to equitable distribution in divorce proceedings. Court litigants should keep in mind that this case does not govern how accidental disability benefits or other marital assets will be divided, but rather holds that any property not excluded by law is thrown into “the pot.” How it will be divided is subject to the specific facts and circumstances of each case, and the factors set forth in RSA 458:16-a

William Sukerman was an employee at the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) Fire and Rescue in Boston from 1991 until a heart attack forced him into retirement in 2008. Upon retirement William began receiving a pension under the Massachusetts retirement system which consisted of an ordinary pension benefit, an annuity and an accidental disability pension benefit. The final divorce decree of the Derry Family Division awarded Michele one-half of the William’s entire “pension plan which accrued between the date of the marriage . . . and the date of the filing of the petition for divorce.”

William argued on appeal that the accidental disability benefit should not have been included in the marital property distribution because it was compensation for lost earning capacity as well as pain and suffering. The court disagreed, and took a “mechanistic approach,” under which all property acquired during the marriage “without regard to title, or to when or how acquired is deemed to be marital property unless it is specifically excepted by statute.” There is no such exception for accidental disability pension benefits in RSA 458:16-a.

The court concluded that this so-called mechanistic approach “best comports with New Hampshire’s equitable distribution law,” under RSA 458:16-a, which provides that “all tangible and intangible property and assets, real or personal, belonging to either or both parties, whether title is held in the name of either or both parties” is subject to equitable distribution. Consequently, the Sukerman case stands for the proposition that so long as there is no specific statutory authority excepting accidental disability benefits from property settlement, such benefits, being acquired during marriage, are marital property and therefore subject to distribution.

Crusco Law Office, PLLC law clerk Dan McLaughlin contributed to this post.

Muchmore & Jaycox: A parenting plan may not be modified solely on "best interests"

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion on December 4, 2009 in the case of In the Matter of Adam Muchmore and Amy Jaycox, a domestic relations case pertaining to the modification of a parenting plan. In Muchmore & Jaycox, the Court holds that a parenting plan cannot be modified solely based on the best interests of the child, and instead the modification must comport with the statutory scheme laid out in RSA 461-A:11. The decision is disappointing, though not unexpected since the Court simply strictly applied the statute, because it prevents parents from modifying a parenting plan for issues such as a new schedule for the transition into kindergarten. Based on this decision, it will be important for the legislature to take action to allow modifications to a parenting schedule that do not rise to the level of the factors enumerated in the statute.

As background, Adam Muchmore and Amy Jaycox are parents of a minor child born in 2006. They previously resided in Vermont but have each since moved to New Hampshire. A June 2007 Vermont Order granted Amy Lecroix “primary legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities” for the child and allowed the petitioner, Adam Muchmore, regular weekly contact with the child.

In July 2008, Muchmore petitioned the Lebanon Family Division to modify the parenting plan pursuant to RSA 461-A:11, claiming that (1) Jaycox had “repeatedly, intentionally, and without justification” interfered with his parental responsibilities for the child and modification would be in the child’s best interests; (2) that there was clear and convincing evidence that the child’s present environment was harmful to her; and (3) because of the respondent’s conduct, the original allocation of parental rights and responsibilities was not working.

The Lebanon Family Division ruled that Muchmore had failed to meet his burden of proof with regard to each of the reasons for modification he cited, pursuant to 461-A:11; I(b), I(c), and I(d). The court went on to hold, however, that Muchmore’s petition was “sufficient to establish that modifying the parties’ parenting schedule would be in the child’s best interests, and that, pursuant to RSA 461-A:4 (Supp. 2008), proof that modification was in the child’s best interests was all that was required.” Jacox appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the circumstances under which a parent may seek modification of an existing parenting plans is governed by RSA 461-A:11, and concluded that because Muchmore did not meet his burden under that statute that he is not entitled to a modification. Muchmore argued that even if he failed to meet his burden under 461-A:11, a parent should be allowed to modify a parenting plan when the modification is in the best interests of the child, citing 461-A:4 as support for his assertion. The court held that even though 461-A:4 referenced a “proceeding to establish or modify”, that statute was aimed at the initial construction of a parenting plan while 461-A:11 governed actual modifications. 

The Court recognized in its opinion that this result was somewhat regrettable in that it prevented a court from “reassessing the best interests of a child in circumstances where the parents are not interfering and where the child’s current environment is not detrimental,” those circumstances being the majority of cases in practice. However, the Court continues, “RSA 461-A:11, I, does not grant the court discretion to modify an existing plan under any other circumstances” and that it is not up to the court to solve that problem or “to speculate as to how the legislature might choose to do so.” (Emphasis added). Simply put, the court is saying that if the legislature wanted to include a provision for the best interests of the child in 461-A:11 it could have chosen to do so. The Court, in the end, relies on strict statutory interpretation and deference to the public policy decisions of the legislature to assert that their hands were effectively tied.

However, without a provision to allow for some limited modifications based on best interests, a parenting plan that addresses the needs of a toddler may have to do for a tween. The parenting plan form itself encourages parents to view the plan as a work in progress as the children grow and their needs change from infant to teen, but the statute itself does not allow for the changes except in the case that the parents agree or major issues develop as set forth in 461-A:11. It is certainly understandable that the legislature would not include a best interests standard for change in major categories such a primary residential responsibility, as this would just encourage more litigation and allow parents to petition the court for modification whenever they might have the upper hand. However, for routine and holiday schedule changes or other issues that do not call for a change in residential responsibility, there needs to be a mechanism to allow for modification based on best interests so that the court may tweak a parenting plan as the current needs of the child dictate.  

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

Termination of parental rights in New Hampshire

“Surely there can be few loses more grievous than the abrogation of parental rights.” Those words are as true today as they were when Supreme Court Justice Blackmun first wrote them in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services in 1981. Unfortunately, there are times, however grievous, when it is necessary to terminate parental rights against a parents wishes. There are also times when rigorous defense against a petition to terminate parental rights is warranted.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the right and the heavy responsibility of the states to terminate the parent-child relationship when there is cause to do so. In New Hampshire, RSA 170-C provides for involuntary termination of parental rights, and the probate courts, and now also the family divisions, have exclusive jurisdiction over such termination of parental rights matters. If the court orders a termination of parental rights, the effect is to sever all legal rights, privileges and duties between the parent and the child. The two become legal strangers in the eyes of the law, with neither parent or child owing any obligations to the other at any point in the future.

 

A termination petition may be filed, pursuant to RSA 170-C:4 by:

 

a.       Either parent;

b.      The child’s guardian or legal custodian;

c.       The child’s foster parent if the child has resided with that foster parent continuously for 24 months; or

d.      An “authorized agency,” which in termination of parental rights petitions would be the Division for Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF.

 

Additionally, the statute sets forth limited conditions on which such a petition may be brought. RSA 170-C:5 lists six circumstances under which a petition for termination of parental rights will be granted:

 

a.       The parents have abandoned the child

b.      The parents have substantially and continuously neglected to provide the child with the care necessary for mental, emotional, or physical health when they are financially able to do so

c.       The parent(s) have failed to correct conditions that lead to a violation of the Child Protection Act, within twelve months of such a finding

d.      The parent is, and will continue to be, mentally incapable, either by deficiency or illness, of caring for the child

e.       The parent knowingly or willingly caused, or allowed to be caused, severe sexual, physical, emotional or mental abuse of the child

f.       The parent has been convicted of any of the following crimes:

a.       The murder of another child of the parent, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, or the child's other parent;

b.      The manslaughter of another child of the parent, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, the child's other parent;

c.       Attempted murder of the child, step-child, sibling or other parent; or

d.      A felony assault which resulted in injury to the child, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, or the child's other parent.

 

Courts will consider the best interest of the child in rendering a decision, sometimes appointing a Guardian Ad Litem to represent that interest. However, even if the court determines that the child’s best interests are served by terminating a parent’s rights, that finding alone is not sufficient to order termination. A court must make an explicit finding under the statute that one or more of the above criteria has been satisfied. The United States Supreme Court states: in Santosky v. Kramer:

The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child is protected by the 14th Amendment, and does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State.

The Santosky court also held that, except for clear cases of abuse, the government should not separate children from their families or countermand parental authority.

 

Because termination affects a fundamental constitutional right for parents to raise their children as they see fit, New Hampshire courts have increased the burden on the petitioner to prove that TPR is appropriate. In State v. Robert H., the New Hampshire Supreme Court made it clear that for the termination of parental rights, the standard to be imposed is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that 170-C:5 has been satisfied. It is fitting that the petitioner must meet this highest burden as “the rights of parents (over the family) are held to be natural, essential and inherent rights, within the meaning of the New Hampshire Constitution,” the New Hampshire Supreme Court states. “The permanent termination of the rights of parents over their children is even more final than involuntary commitment or delinquency proceedings” both of which require that heightened standard; no other standard would be appropriate.  

 

The above discussion merely scratches the surface of these intricate and complicated issues. Each case has its own set of unique facts and circumstances. The termination of parental rights is extremely serious, and for that reason, as well as those cited above, it is very important that you retain competent counsel if you are involved in a TPR action, whether as the parent or the petitioner. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC for further information. 

 

Crusco Law Office, PLLC law clerk, Daniel McLaughlin, contributed to this post.

Court filing fees increase as of July 1, 2009

On July 1, 2009, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an order increasing the filing fees in all cases. The filing fee for a divorce without children is now $205, and a divorce with children or a parenting petition is now $207.

According the the media advisory posted by the court, the fee increase was necessary to continue to fund the services provided by the judicial branch.

Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. said the court's decision to change the fees came after state lawmakers asked each branch of state government to find ways to increase state revenue during a severe economic downturn. The Judicial Branch had suggested generating more revenue through fee changes during recent budget negotiations with House and Senate members.

“We have agreed to keep almost 60 staff positions open during the next biennium and will manage with reductions in our operations to meet the new biennial budget,” Chief Justice Broderick said. “In order to keep the system functioning and avoid even further reductions, we felt we had to ask court users to shoulder some of the economic strain on our state during this very difficult time, " the Chief Justice said. "We view our decision as a necessary step we had to take to assist the state in meeting its budget.These are unprecedented economic times,” he added.

 

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.

I/M/O Lynn: Returning to school may be a substantial change in circumstances to modify child support

Once a child support order has been approved by the court the modification statute, NH RSA 458- C:7, allows for a petition to modify the child support order after three (3) years have passed. If one party petitions for a modification before the three year mark they must show a substantial change in circumstances that makes continuing the original order improper and unfair.

The NH supreme court released an opinion on In the Matter of Lynn and Lynn on April 24, 2009 which deals with the substantial change in circumstances standard. In this case, when the Mother and Father got divorced, two children began residing with Father and one child with Mother. Mother became obligated to pay child support at a rate that deviated from the guidelines due to her limited income. Less than 3 years later, Mother petitioned to modify her child support obligation because she had been accepted to nursing school and was going to have to work part-time. The court granted the modification and ceased all obligations to pay child support.

The trial court specifically found that the Mother’s income while in school was a substantial change in circumstances and that even though the Mother is voluntarily underemployed it is only one factor to consider whether or not modification is warranted.

The Father appealed the decision to discontinue child support. The Father argued that by choosing to go to nursing school the Mother was voluntarily underemployed and therefore she should still be required to pay the child support. The NH Supreme Court held that the trial court followed the statute and therefore the trial court did not err in modifying the child support.

However, the court warned that this particular case is not meant to imply that a parent is entitled to reduced child support obligation whenever the parent has voluntarily reduced his/her income to attend school. The court mused that there could be circumstances when a parent goes back to school voluntarily and even with decreased income they must still pay the initial child support amount.

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

How do I relocate with my children out of state?

Q: I have primary residential responsibility for my children, and I want to move out of state with them, what do I need to do to move?

A: The relocation statute (NH RSA 461-A:12) requires that the relocating parent shall provide reasonable notice to the other parent of the move. While “reasonable notice” may vary depending on special factors present in your case, in most cases 60 days is presumed reasonable notice. This notice requirement applies in all parenting rights and responsibilities cases unless specifically addressed otherwise in the parties’ existing order or agreement. However, it does not apply when the relocation will move the parent and children closer to the other parent or within the same school district.

 

If the non-relocating parent objects, the court will hold a hearing on the matter at the request of either parent. Often, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem to investigate the issues and make a recommendation to the court regarding the relocation.

 

In order for the relocating parent’s request to be approved, that parent must show that their relocation is for a legitimate purpose and that the proposed relocation is reasonable in light of that purpose. In other words, if the relocating parent is moving to be near her family that lives in Florida, the proposed move should be to Florida and not North Dakota. A legitimate purpose may be for a variety of different reasons, including economic opportunities such as employment or the ability to be self-supportive, to be close to a support network of friends and family, or for an educational opportunity for the parent or children.

 

If the relocating parent proves, by a preponderance of the evidence (more probable than not), that the relocation is for a legitimate purpose, then the burden shifts to the non-relocating parent who must show the court that the proposed relocating is not in the best interests of the children. Even if the relocating parent has a legitimate purpose, and is not moving for nefarious purposes such as interfering in the other parent’s relationship with the children, the court may find that it is not in the children’s best interests and deny to relocation.

 

When considering the relocation, the court may consider several factors enumerated in the NH Supreme Court cases Tomasko and Pfeuffer:

 

·         Each parent’s reasons for seeking or opposing the move;

·         The quality of the relationships between the child and the custodial and noncustodial parents;

·         The impact of the move on the quantity and quality of the child's future contact with the noncustodial parent;

·         The degree to which the custodial parent’s and child’s life may be enhanced economically, emotionally, and educationally by the move;

·         The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the noncustodial parent and child through suitable visitation arrangements;

·         Any negative impact from continued or exacerbated hostility between the custodial and noncustodial parents; and

·         The effect that the move may have on any extended family relations.

 

No single factor is presumed to be dispositive, and the court may consider additional factors as the case demands.

IMO Guy: Fault divorce for endangering health or reasons requires more than anger and hurt feelings

The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently held In the Matter of Joni Guy and Daniel Guy on March 5, 2009 that in order to prove a fault-based divorce for endangering health or reason, the innocent spouse must prove that there has been more than just hurt feelings and anger. This holding raises the standard and makes this type of fault based divorce much harder to prove.  

Joni filed for divorce citing the fault grounds (NH RSA 458:7 ) of conduct endangering her health and reason, adultery, and habitual drunkenness. Alternatively, she sought a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences. (458:7-a. ) The trial court dismissed the grounds of habitual drunkenness and adultery but granted Joni the divorce on the fault grounds of conduct endangering Joni’s health and reason. The exact language of 458:7(V) is: When either party has so treated the other as seriously to injure health or endanger reason. Daniel appealed the final divorce decree based arguing that the trial court had made an error by granting Joni the fault based divorce.

 

The NH Supreme Court examined the meaning and standard of conduct that would be considered to injure an innocent spouse’s health and endanger their reason. The court determined that any behavior of one party which affects the other physically or mentally is treatment within the meaning of the statute. The opinion goes on to state that while the statute does not require proof of conduct that would have affected an average reasonable person, it does require proof that the health or reason of the complaining spouse was actually affected.  

 

The court scrutinized the conduct that Joni alleged caused her injury to her health and reason. Joni alleged that e-mails between Daniel and a former girlfriend which spoke of their love for each other and were sexually suggestive caused her to feel  “angry, upset and distraught”.

 

The court determined that this type of conduct is insufficient to constitute treatment that arises to the level of seriousness required by the statute. Feeling angry, upset and distraught does not constitute serious injury to one’s health or endangerment to one’s reason. The conduct at issue did not harm Joni’s physical well-being. Nor did it cause her to suffer the type of mental anguish the statute was intended to encompass. Therefore, the court reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the case back  to the trial court for further proceedings.

 

Crusco Law Office, PLLC Law Clerk Marisa Ulloa contributed to this post.

Parents may not waive NH statutory provision prohibiting an order requiring payment of adult child's college expenses

On January 30, 2009 the NH Supreme Court released the opinion for In the Matter of Joseph Goulart, Jr. and Marcia Goulart in which the Court held that parents are not free to waive the provisions of the statute that prohibit any child support order requiring a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school. The Court urged the legislature to reexamine the statutory language regarding approval or enforcement of a stipulated parenting plan in order to take into consideration a situation where the divorcing parties are fully informed, represented by counsel and mutually agree that one or both will voluntarily contribute to their adult child’s college expenses.

Joseph and Marcia divorced in 2005 while their son was still a minor. Part of their final divorce decree incorporated a Stipulated Parenting Plan, negotiated with counsel, which included a provision stating:

 

The parties are aware of the statutory provisions prohibiting the Court from ordering any parent to contribute to expenses for an adult child. Despite this prohibition the parties agree that Joseph shall be responsible for payment of the son’s college educational expenses.

 

In 2007, Joseph filed a motion to define his obligation regarding college expenses for the same reasons he cited before. There was a hearing and the family division ruled that Joseph was expected to assist with college expenses as agreed to in the Parenting Plan.

 

Joseph appealed that decision to the NH Supreme Court, contending that the family division has no authority to enforce the college education funding obligation because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter such an order under NH RSA 461-A:14, V. The statute reads: “No child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school.”

 

The Court agreed with Joseph that the statute deprived both the superior court and the family division of subject matter jurisdiction to either approve or enforce a provision in a stipulated parenting plan that requires parents to contribute to their adult child’s college expenses. The family division should have modified the parenting plan by striking the college expense provision.

 

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

 

In Re James N. holds that delinquent acts cannot be the basis of a CHINS petition

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released In Re James N. on October 8, 2008 holding that the basis of a CHINS petition under the Child in Need of Services statute cannot be founded upon a delinquent act.

In 2007, the Mother filed a CHINS petition involving her 6 year old son James, who at the time was in DCYF’s custody. Mother alleged that he was a child in need of services for failing to obey the reasonable commands of his parent, guardian or custodian pursuant to RSA 169-D:2, II(b). The specific acts alleged in the petition were: threatening others with physical harm, threatening to set fire to a residence, harming his foster family’s dog, attempting to strangle his foster brother, head butting, biting, and placing glass “sharps” in others’ clothing.

At the hearing, James, joined by DCYF, moved to dismiss arguing that the alleged underlying facts are delinquent acts and may not be included in a CHINS petition. The court granted James’ motion finding that the petition failed because the acts alleged were delinquent acts.

The mother then filed four delinquency petitions alleging cruelty to animals, simple assault, and reckless conduct. James moved to dismiss arguing that a six-year old is presumed not to be competent to stand trial in delinquency proceedings and is presumed not to be capable of committing a crime due to his tender age. The court agreed with James and found that he could not consult with his attorney or have a rational understanding of the proceeding. Therefore, it would be a violation of his due process rights to make him stand trial.

The mother appeals to the NH Supreme Court and argues that the allegation of a delinquent act should not be fatal to a CHINS petition if the child cannot form the required mens rea (guilty mind). The court disagreed, and stated that the plain language of the statute does not allow delinquent acts to be included in a CHINS petition. Further, under the Mother’s interpretation the child would have to prove his guilt with respect to the act in order to show the act should be excluded from the petition. This would be an absurd result and the legislature would not pass an act leading to an absurdity. Additionally, the court points out that the definition of a child in need of services supports their interpretation because the definition does not overlap with the definition of a delinquent.

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

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.

Are uninsured medical expenses and extracurricular activities included in child support guildelines?

Clients often ask about including in their parenting plan a provision requiring both parents to contribute to a child’s extracurricular activity expenses and uninsured medical expenses. These issues were brought before the New Hampshire Supreme Court In the Matter of Cheryl Anne Coderre and Paul A. Coderre on September 30, 2002. The father appealed an by the trial court that ordered him to pay for his children’s uninsured medical expenses and extracurricular activity expenses in addition to the child support ordered under the child support guidelines.

First, the Court determined that uninsured medical expenses are extraordinary expenses that are not included in child support guidelines. The Court looked at the statute regulating child support RSA 458-C and determined that the calculations under the guidelines are presumed to be correct but that the court may adjust the guidelines either upward or downward if it deems this deviation is warranted. More specifically looking at RSA 458-C:5, I(a) which states that the trial court “may deviate from the guideline support amount if it finds that a child will incur ongoing extraordinary medical expenses.” Therefore, the Court upheld the trial court’s order for payment of uninsured health insurance.

Additionally, the Court held that “extracurricular activity expenses are part of basic guidelines support” because they fall into the same category of such basic support as food, shelter and recreation. Because there is no language to the contrary in the guidelines the Court concluded that extracurricular activity expenses are included in the parties’ total support obligation. Therefore, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision on this matter.

In sum, a court has discretion to award uninsured medical expenses that are separate from the child support award determined by the guidelines. On the other hand, extracurricular activity expenses are considered to be included in the child support guidelines and may not be awarded separately.

Blog credit: Marisa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

Prior voluntary acknowledgement of paternity precludes future genetic marker testing

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion today In the Matter of Kevin Gendron and Jody Plaistek that held that a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity executed in Massachusetts must be given full faith and credit and that the trial court erred in ordering genetic marker testing. The voluntary acknowledgement of paternity signed by both parents had all ready established the father as the legal father to the child, and therefore there was no need for further proof of paternity to establish parenting rights and responsibilities.

The court noted that it had made similar rulings in Watts v. Watts, which held that a father was precluded from seeking blood tests to disprove his paternity fifteen years after the children's births. In Watts, the court found that to allow the father to escape liability for support by blood tests would ignore his lengthy, voluntary acknowledgement of paternity. Here, the court noted that although the mother was seeking to disprove paternity, the result should not be any different than that in Watts.

Today's opinion should serve as a warning to anyone who voluntarily signs an acknowledgement of paternity. If there are any doubts or questions regarding paternity, seek legal counsel prior to signing the acknowledgment  because it may preclude the ability to reopen the issue of paternity in the future.

An Alimony Primer for New Hampshire Residents

Alimony, also called maintenance or spousal support, is payments made to a spouse or former spouse under a court order. Alimony in New Hampshire is "rehabilitative' and is based on the theory that both spouse should be able to provide for their own financial needs. Therefore, when alimony is awarded, it is designed to encourage the supported spouse to establish an independent source of income. However, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled  that this theory is not controlling when the alimony recipient "suffers from ill health and is not capable of establishing an individual source of income, or where the supported spouse in a long-term marriage lacks the requisite job skills to independently approximate the standard of living established during the marriage."

In order to award alimony, the court must find that the supported party lacks sufficient income, property, or both to meet their reasonable needs and be self-supporting and that the paying party can provide for their own reasonable needs and those of the other spouse. The court should also consider the style of living to which the parties have become accustomed during the marriage in determining their reasonable needs.

How much will the court award in alimony? The court relies on several factors to determine the amount of alimony to be awarded, including:

  •  the length of the marriage;
  • the age, health, social or economic status, occupation, amount and sources of income, the property awarded in the divorce decree, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities, and needs of each of the parties;
  • the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income;
  • the fault of either party;
  • the federal tax consequences of the divorce order. 
  • the economic contribution of each party to the value of their respective estates
  • the non-economic contributions to the family unit.

To read New Hampshire's law on alimony, click here.