Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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Daniel Watanabe and Solveig (Watanabe) Pedersen divorced in 2016. During the marriage, Pedersen inherited a large sum of money and land after her mother passed away. At their dissolution trial, the court held that various real properties were Pedersen’s separate property, despite the fact that both Watanabe’s and Pedersen’s names were on the title for the properties. Watanabe appealed, arguing the trial court erred by failing to apply the joint title gift presumption since the property was acquired in both of their names during marriage. Watanabe also argued the trial court erred by allowing extrinsic evidence of Pedersen’s intent when she quitclaimed her separate property to the community. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the gift presumption did not apply, regardless of whether the property was acquired before or during marriage. The Court of Appeals also held that extrinsic evidence was appropriately admitted to determine whether Pedersen intended to transmute separate property, not to dispute the quitclaim deed itself. After review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals: the joint title gift presumption did not apply regardless of whether the property was acquired before or during marriage. In addition, the Supreme Court held that extrinsic evidence could be admitted to explain the intent of the parties when signing a quitclaim deed to determine whether a party intended to convert separate property into community property. View "In re Marriage of Watanabe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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K.W. was removed from his long-term placement with his relative, “Grandma B.,” after she took a one-day trip and did not notify the social worker of the trip. The consequence of this removal resulted in tremendous upheaval in K.W.’s life and violated the requirements of RCW 13.34.130. Though K.W. was legally free, the placement preferences set out in the statute still applied, and the court erred in failing to apply them and failing to place K.W. with relatives. View "In re Dependency of K.W." on Justia Law

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The Washington Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this case to address a concern about inconsistent practices among the three divisions of the Washington Court of Appeals in creating case titles in dependency and termination proceedings. Inconsistency in the use of parties’ names in such case titles has been an issue among Washington appellate courts. While all three divisions generally use initials in place of children’s names, Division One routinely added parents’ full names to case titles along with their designation as “appellant.” Division Two often changed case titles to designate appealing parents, but used parents’ initials rather than their names. And Division Three typically did not include the names or initials of appealing parents. In this case, Division One followed its typical practice by changing the case title from that created in the superior court to add the mother’s full name and replace the child’s name with initials, while retaining the child’s birth date. The Supreme Court concluded this practice was inconsistent with RAP 3.4 and the 2018 Court of Appeals General Order. Accordingly, the case was remanded with instructions for the Court of Appeals to revise the case title in accordance with the court rule and general order. View "In re Welfare of K.D." on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Department) met its burden under the Washington State Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA) to provide active efforts to reunify C.A. with her children. After review, the Washington Supreme Court held the Department failed to provide active efforts when it provided untimely referrals and only passively engaged with C.A. from January through June 2019. The Supreme Court also held that the dependency court impermissibly applied the futility doctrine when it speculated that even had the Department acted more diligently, C.A. would not have been responsive. Therefore, the dependency court’s finding that the Department satisfied the active efforts requirement from January through June 2019 was reversed. The matter was remanded and the dependency court directed to order the Department to provide active efforts in accordance with the Court's opinion before the court proceeds to hear the filed termination of parental rights petitions. View "In re Dependency of G.J.A." on Justia Law

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The parent in this case, J.C., contended that the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) did not tailor its offer of services to accommodate her intellectual disability prior to recommending termination of her parental rights. “Understandable offers of services are essential to giving a parent a meaningful opportunity to remedy their parental deficiencies and preserve their parent-child relationship. … A termination is certainly erroneous where DCYF did not fulfill its duty to understandably offer services to the parent. Absent sufficient evidence proving that DCYF fulfilled this duty, it is not possible for a court to determine why efforts to reunite the family were unsuccessful. Perhaps the parent was unwilling or unable to remedy their deficiencies. Or perhaps the parent was capable of improvement but struggling to understand precisely what they must do. Both situations are frustrating and potentially devastating for those involved, but there is a world of difference between them.” In this case, the Washington Supreme Court concluded DCYF did not prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that it made sufficient efforts to ensure that its offers of services were reasonably understandable to J.C. in light of her potential intellectual disability. It therefore reversed the order terminating her parental rights. View "In re Termination of Parental Rights to M.A.S.C." on Justia Law

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In 2018, E.M. was a three-year-old boy who had lived with his grandmother since birth as a dependent child of the State. When his grandmother sought to return to work, E.M. suddenly found himself in a custodial tug-of-war between his biological parents, his grandmother, and the State. The Superior Court placed E.M. in foster care. E.M.’s grandmother quickly retained an attorney for E.M. for the purpose of asking the Superior Court to reconsider its decision. The attorney, however, was unable to meet with E.M. because the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Department) would not provide contact details or arrange a meeting with E.M. Ultimately, the court declined reconsidering E.M.’s placement in foster care because it ruled that the attorney was not appointed by the court to represent E.M. and because the representation raised numerous ethical issues. E.M.’s mother appealed this ruling, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, finding that "circumstances may arise where an attorney must undertake a representation to protect a person’s interest in limited circumstances before the attorney has had a chance to meet with the person or obtain the court’s approval. Accordingly, before striking a representation, the court must first consider whether the circumstances may authorize such a limited representation. As the superior court failed to make this consideration before striking the notice of appearance, we reverse." View "In re Dependency of E.M." on Justia Law

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Two of L.K.’s three children were Indian children for the purposes of federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) and Washington State Indian Child Welfare Act (WICWA). L.K. claimed the State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (Department) removed her children without making "active efforts" to keep the family together as was required under the two laws. The Court of Appeals did not address this issue but, instead, sua sponte found that under the invited error doctrine, L.K. was precluded from raising this issue on appeal, holding that because L.K. repeatedly contended she did not need services, she could not now claim on appeal that the Department did not provide her sufficient services under ICWA and WICWA. It did not reach the issue of whether the Department provided active efforts. The Washington Supreme Court reversed appellate court's holding regarding "invited error." With respect to "active efforts," the Supreme Court found the Department did not engage in the statutorily required active efforts to prevent the breakup of an Indian family. Accordingly, the dispositional order continuing L.R.C.K.-S. and D.B.C.K.-S.’s foster care placement was vacated. The matter was remanded for immediate return of these two children to their mother, unless the trial court finds returning the children put them in “substantial and immediate danger or threat of such danger.” The finding of dependency was unaffected. View "In re Dependency of A.L.K., L.R.C.K.-S., D.B.C.K.-S." on Justia Law

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In 2018, a dependency petition was filed alleging that A.M.-S' father had physically abused the child. Although the father denied the allegations against him, he stipulated to a finding of dependency “given the nature of the allegations and the possibility of criminal charges.” The court ordered the father to engage in a “[p]sychological evaluation with a parenting component” and reserved ruling on other possible evaluations. The father asked the trial court to go beyond the RCW 26.44.053(2)'s requirements and prohibit not only the “use” of his statements during his court-ordered evaluation but also any “derivative use” of those statements in connection with a dependency hearing. The county prosecutor objected, and the trial court denied the father’s motion. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in a published opinion. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals: under these circumstances, the trial court was not required to grant derivative use immunity over the prosecutor’s objection. View "In re Dependency of A.M.-S." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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The "[Indian Child Welfare Act] ICWA and [Washington State Indian Child Welfare Act] WICWA were enacted to remedy the historical and persistent state-sponsored destruction of Native families and communities. . . . The acts provide specific protections for Native children in child welfare proceedings and are aimed at preserving the children’s relationships with their families, Native communities, and identities. The acts also require states to send notice to tribes so that tribes may exercise their independent rights and interests to protect their children and, in turn, the continuing existence of tribes as thriving communities for generations to come." At issue in this case was whether the trial court had “reason to know” that M.G and Z.G. were Indian children at a 72-hour shelter care hearing. The Washington Supreme Court held that a trial court had “reason to know” that a child was an Indian child when a participant in the proceeding indicates that the child has tribal heritage. "We respect that tribes determine membership exclusively, and state courts cannot establish who is or is not eligible for tribal membership on their own." The Court held that an indication of tribal heritage was sufficient to satisfy the “reason to know” standard. Here, participants in a shelter care hearing indicated that M.G. and Z.G. had tribal heritage. The trial court had “reason to know” that M.G. and Z.G. were Indian children, and it erred by failing to apply ICWA and WICWA standards to the proceeding. View "In re Dependency of Z.J.G." on Justia Law

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In 2018, the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families (Department) moved to terminate J.J.'s parental rights to her three children. After closing arguments, the trial court orally ruled that the Department had not met its burden to prove by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that the Department had offered all necessary services or that there was no reasonable likelihood of J.J. correcting her parental deficiencies in the near future. But instead of dismissing the termination petition, the trial court continued the trial without entering any findings of fact or conclusions of law. Two months later, the trial court heard more evidence and then terminated J.J.’s parental rights to all three of her children. J.J. appealed, arguing that the trial court violated her right to due process when it continued the trial after finding that the Department had not met its burden of proof. The Court of Appeals affirmed the termination. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and dismissed the termination petition, holding the trial court indeed violated J.J.’s right to due process when it continued the trial after finding the Department had not met its burden of proof. View "In re Welfare of D.E." on Justia Law