Justia Washington Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
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After six years of marriage, Michael Petelle filed a petition to dissolve his marriage to petitioner, Michelle Ersfeld-Petelle, having separated on January 27, 2017. The parties, both represented by counsel, executed a separation contract and CR 2A agreement on February 14, 2017. The contract divided assets and liabilities, contained an integration clause, and required all modifications to be in writing. In the contract, the parties agreed “to make a complete and final settlement of all their marital and property rights and obligations on the following terms and conditions.” The contract also provided that the “contract shall be final and binding upon the execution of both parties, whether or not a legal separation or decree of dissolution is obtained[,]” and, by its terms, the contract remained valid and enforceable against the estate of either party if either party died after the execution of the contract. Though the contract contained a “Full Satisfaction of All Claims” section, the right to intestate succession was not mentioned. Petitioner claimed that she and Michael were contemplating reconciliation, citing an e-mail Michael sent to his attorney requesting an extension to the “closing date” of the divorce. Before any reconciliation or dissolution occurred, Michael died intestate on May 1, 2017. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review centered on whether Michelle, as surviving spouse, agreed in a separation contract to give up her right to intestate succession under RCW 11.04.015. Petitioner sought reversal of a published Court of Appeals opinion reversing the trial court’s denial of a motion to terminate her right to intestate succession in Michael's estate. After review, the Supreme Court concluded that under the terms of the contract, petitioner expressly waived her right to intestate succession. View "In re Estate of Petelle" on Justia Law

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Jessica Wrigley brought a negligent investigation claim against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) based on the placement of her son, A.A., with his biological father, Anthony Viles, during dependency hearings. Within three months of the placement, Viles killed A.A. The superior court dismissed Wrigley’s claim on summary judgment, finding the duty to investigate was never triggered. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding the “trigger” was Wrigley’s prediction that Viles would harm A.A. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding a report predicting future abuse absent evidence of current or past conduct of abuse or neglect did not invoke a duty to investigate under RCW 26.44.050. View "Wrigley v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Former foster children brought a case against the Department of Social and Health Service (DSHS) alleging negligence in failing to protect them from the tortious or criminal acts of their foster (and later, adoptive) parents. At the close of evidence, the trial court granted the Department's CR 50 motion and dismissed the children's claims of negligence concerning the preadoption-foster care period. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding DSHS owed them a common law duty to protect dependent foster children from foreseeable harm based on the special relationship between DSHS and such children. The Washington Supreme Court agreed with this reasoning, and remanded for trial on the children's preadoption claims. View "H.B.H. v. Washington" on Justia Law

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This matter involved two unrelated juveniles, E.H. and S.K.-P. in unrelated dependency proceedings. R.R., E.H.;s mother, and S.K.-P. both challenged the validity of RCW 13.34.100's discretionary standard for appointment of counsel for children in dependency proceedings, and sought instead a categorical right to counsel for all children in dependency proceedings. The Washington Supreme Court consolidate these cases to address that issue. The Supreme Court determined RCW 13.34.100(7)(a) was adequate under the Washington Constitution, and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a motion to appoint counsel. In light of GR 15, the Supreme Court held confidential juvenile court records remain sealed and confidential on appeal, and granted a joint motion to seal records in these matters. View "In re Dependency of E.H." on Justia Law

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Esmeralda Rodriguez petitioned for protection on behalf of her two-year-old son, arguing that Luis Zavala's repeated threats against her son constituted "domestic violence" under the plain language of RCW 26.50.010(3), and that she could petition for a protection order on her son's behalf based on her reasonable fear for him. Rodriguez feared Zavala would make good on his past threats and kill her, her daughters, their son, and then kill himself. Rodriguez petitioned ex parte for a domestic violence protection order for herself and her children, including L.Z. In her petition, Rodriguez described the assault that compelled her to seek the order, as well as Zavala's history of violence. The court issued a temporary order pending a full hearing. The temporary order restrained Zavala from contacting Rodriguez and all four children. The trial court issued a protective order for Rodriguez and her daughters, but excluded L.Z., explaining that the boy was not "present" during the assault or threatened at all. According to the trial judge, "[L.Z.] wasn't involved in any of this." Rodriguez appealed. Among other things, she argued that her son should have been included in the final protection order based on her fear that Zavala would hurt L.Z. The Washington Supreme Court agreed that Rodriguez could petition for protection of L.Z. under the plain language of RCW 26.50.010(3), and reversed the trial court's decision. View "Rodriguez v. Zavala" on Justia Law

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Rachelle and Charles Black were married for nearly 20 years and had three sons. They raised their children in a conservative Christian church and sent them to private, Christian schools. In 2011, Rachelle told Charles that she was lesbian, and the parties divorces shortly thereafter. In the order of dissolution, the trial court designated Charles as the primary residential parent. The final parenting plan also awarded Charles sole decision-making authority regarding the children's education and religious upbringing. The record showed that the trial court considered Rachelle's sexual orientation as a factor when it fashioned the final parenting plan. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found improper bias influenced the proceedings. “This bias casts doubt on the trial court's entire ruling, and we are not confident the trial court ensured a fair proceeding by maintaining a neutral attitude regarding Rachelle's sexual orientation. Accordingly, we reverse.” View "In re Marriage of Black" on Justia Law

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Victor and Deanna Zandi's were divorced in 2009. Their dependent daughter, T.Z., incurred approximately $13,000 in medical bills when she had a kidney stone removed while traveling outside her medical insurer’s, Kaiser Permanente, network. The superior court ordered Victor Zandi to pay 7 5 percent of the cost and Deanna Zandi to pay the remaining 25 percent. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the superior court abused its discretion by modifying the parties' 2009 order of child support, which required Victor Zandi to pay 100 percent of "uninsured medical expenses." This case presented an issue of whether out-of-network health care costs qualified as "[u]ninsured medical expenses" under RCW 26.18.170(18)(d). The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals: the legislature defined "[u]ninsured medical expenses" as costs not covered by insurance. WAC 388-14A-1020 clarified that this included costs "not paid" by insurance, even if those costs would be covered under other circumstances. Because the health care expenses in this case were unambiguously within the scope of RCW 26.18.170(18)(d), financial responsibility was allocated by the 2009 order and may not be modified absent evidence of changed circumstances or other evidence consistent with the requirements of RCW 26.09.170(6)-(7). View "In re Marriage of Zandi" on Justia Law

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Petitioner J.B. argued that his parental rights with respect to his biological child K.J.B. could not be terminated without express written findings of fact on “incarcerated parent factors” from the 2013 amendment of RCW 13.34.180(1)(f). The Supreme Court held that while explicit findings on the incarcerated parent factors were not statutorily required, consideration of the factors was mandatory. Because the trial court failed to consider the incarcerated parent factors in this case, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for consideration of the incarcerated parent factors. View "In re Parental Rights to K.J.B." on Justia Law

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Faualuga and Billie Siufanua sought custody of L.M.S., their granddaughter. The grandparents contended that placing L.M.S. with Tony Fuga, her biological father, would cause actual detriment because the father has been mostly absent from her life and because they are the only parents she has known. But absent additional circumstances, the Supreme Court could not assume that interfering with the parent-like relationship between L.M.S. and her grandparents amounted to actual detriment. Fuga has a positive relationship with L.M.S., and he was able and willing to raise her. The grandparents failed to present sufficient facts demonstrating a specific detriment that would ensue if L.M.S. was placed with Fuga. Under these circumstances, the trial court correctly denied the grandparents' nonparental custody petition for lacking adequate cause. View "In re Custody of L.M.S." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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A mother sought an emergency protection order to keep her soon-to-be ex-husband away from her and their children because, she alleged, he had abused them. The father denied the allegations and sought to cross-examine one of the daughters about her claim that he had repeatedly tried to suffocate her, among other things. Evidence was presented that the daughter was suicidal, was unable to confront her father, and would be significantly traumatized by this cross-examination. The issue this case presented was whether the father had a constitutional or statutory right to question his minor daughter in court before the protection order could be issued. Finding under the facts of this case that he did not, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Aiken v. Aiken" on Justia Law