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Sometimes parental rights are terminated due to a parent’s failure to make reasonable progress to correct the situation that resulted in a child being removed from the home. But how does the court measure reasonable progress? And when does it do the measuring? In a recent North Carolina parental rights case, a mother appealed from the lower court’s order terminating her parental rights for failure to make reasonable progress to correction conditions that led to her being removed from the home.

The case arose when the Department of Social Services got nonsecure custody of a child. They petitioned the court, claiming she was neglected and that her home was made harmful by domestic violence between the parents. The mother had been choked in the child’s presence ,when the child was only four months at the time, and there was also a bruise on her arm. The mother had filed charges against the father for injuring the child in question’s half-sibling who had to go live with her father.

The lower court found that the child was neglected. She was placed with her paternal grandmother. The lower court ordered the mother to follow an out-of-home service agreement that required her to complete various tasks, including getting psychological and mental health assessments and refraining from criminal actions. She also had to get and keep a stable income for at least three months in a row. She was permitted 90 minutes of supervised visitation with her child each week.

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You may be wondering whether you’ll need an expert to value your property during a divorce. It may be necessary to retain one, but there are also some cases, where a property owner can provide adequate testimony about the value of assets. In a recent North Carolina appellate decision, a plaintiff appealed from the judge’s equitable distribution of his and his wife’s property. He argued that the lower court had made a mistake in valuing sports memorabilia at $190,000 when his ex-wife hadn’t provided competent evidence of the memorabilia’s fair market value.

The couple had married in 1999. They had a child while married and separated in 2015. The husband sued for child support, child custody and attorneys’ fees. The wife counterclaimed. The husband moved for equitable distribution of their property. Of particular contention were items of sports memorabilia. Some was with the husband and some was with the wife. The wife thought the father had sold the missing memorabilia after they’d separated and believed appointing an expert was critical to value the memorabilia.

In the course of the divorce, the wife subpoenaed eBay to get the husband’s purchase history. She also sent the husband a spoliation letter. The husband went to their home and unloaded various sports items. The court allowed her to inspect his apartment and storage unit and she valued the items assigned to him at $190,000, while items assigned to her were valued at $5000. Included in the $190,000 figure were items not left behind that had been removed. Among other things the husband owned 13 boxes of baseball cards that were about 3200 a piece, 200 jerseys that were about $110 each plus the value of the signature when these jerseys were signed, as well as other memorabilia. Altogether the wife believed the fair market value was $190,000.

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Becker Williams, F. Supp. 3d     , 2016 WL 878492 (W.D. Wash. 2016)

Facts: Husband and wife were married in In 2002, the husband designated the wife as survivor beneficiary of his retirement plans with Xerox.

Husband and wife were divorced in 2006. In 2007, the employer received several telephone calls from a person claiming to be the husband, who said that he wanted to change the beneficiary to his son by a prior marriage. In response to these calls, the employer sent the husband three different copies of the written form necessary to complete the change. The first two forms were not returned; the third form was returned unsigned and undated.

When the husband died, both wife and son asserted claims to the survivor benefits, and the employer interpleaded the benefits into federal court. The trial court declined to allow summary judgment, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that a telephonic change of beneficiary was potentially enforceable, even without a writing, and that a it was a material issue of fact as to whether such a designation was actually made. Becker v. Williams, 777 F.3d 1035, 1042 (9th Cir. 2015). Upon remand, the district court held a trial and addressed the merits.

Issue: Who was entitled to the husband’s survivor benefits?

Answer to Issue: The wife

Summary of Rationale: Under Washington state law, to change a survivor beneficiary, an employee must substantially conform with the terms of the policy or “[S]ubstantial compliance with the terms of the policy means that the insured has not only manifested an intent to change beneficiaries, but has done everything which was reasonably possible to make that change.”   2016 WL 878492, at *2 (quoting Allen v. Abrahamson, 12 Wash. App. 103, 105, 529 P.2d 469, 470 (1974)).

The son did not meet his burden of proving substantial compliance. First, there was no evidence that the person who called to make the change of beneficiary was actually the husband. Second, the husband’s failure to return the first two forms and his failure to sign and date the third form suggest that his intention to change the beneficiary was not complete. In this regard, the court noted that the forms themselves stated that the change of beneficiary was not valid until the form was signed and returned. “[T]he failure to complete simple, mundane tasks undermines Asa Sr.’s alleged unequivocal desire to change his beneficiary.” Id. at *3.

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In North Carolina, custody can be modified when there is a substantial change of circumstances, but importantly, this change need not be adverse. A positive change can also be the basis for a modification of North Carolina child custody. In a recent appellate decision, the court considered modification of custody in a child’s best interest at a grandparent’s request. The case arose from the modification of a 2012 custody order. The plaintiffs were the paternal grandparents of two children, and the plaintiff’s son was the children’s father. The children’s mother had gotten married since an earlier order of the court and her interests were opposed to the father and grandparents’ interests.

An earlier custody order had given the father sole legal and physical custody of the children. The mother had visitation rights. The father and children lived with the grandparents at that time. The father had limited intelligence and education and needed to rely on his parents. However, the mother admitted to the father that she used drugs and alcohol excessively at one point, and that she was hanging out with a man who was later imprisoned for meth sales. She wasn’t able to keep a job and had to move multiple times due to an inability to pay rent and utilities.

When the kids were five and two, their grandmother found the house covered in trash and alcohol and one of the kids had cut herself due to glass being on the floor. She removed the child from the mother’s home.

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Sometimes parents disagree as to the best course of treatment for a child’s mental health or health condition, or with regard to education. These issues came up in a recent North Carolina child custody appellate decision, in which a father appealed the court’s order giving a mother primary physical custody of their child, while only giving him secondary physical custody. The court had given the parents joint legal custody but gave the mother final decision making powers with regard to education and healthcare while the father retained final decision making powers with regard to sports.

The father argued the lower court made a mistake in several ways. The appellate court reasoned that the lower court’s findings were enough to support its decision about what physical custody award would address the child’s best interests, but it did hold that the lower court’s findings weren’t enough to support an award of joint legal custody with a split in decision making powers.

The case arose when the parents had one child. They lasted as a family unit for a few years when the parents decided to separate. The father asked for custody of the child. The mother counterclaimed. The father appealed from the permanent custody order.

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In a recent unpublished opinion of a North Carolina child support decision, a court considered a child support order involving a mother who was voluntarily unemployed. The father had appealed from the lower court’s child support order claiming that the lower court had made a mistake in concluding as a matter of law that only the defendant father owed the obligation to give support to the couple’s minor children and by failing to impute income to the mother who was voluntarily unemployed.

The couple had married in 2003 and divorced in 2015, after having two kids. They had equal physical custody. The mother had more income than the father did, but she didn’t pay support to the father. However, she remarried and got pregnant with another child. She’d been working full time as a registered nurse throughout her pregnancy in 2015, but after her daughter was born in 2015, she got a new job as a registered nurse and worked three shifts each week. When she became pregnant with twins, the pregnancy was considered high-risk and she stopped working. The babies were born five weeks premature and she didn’t go back to work as a nurse.

The county Child Support Enforcement Agency brought an action on behalf of the mother asking for child support from the father. The lower court deviated from the state child support guidelines and ordered the father to pay child support each month and provide health insurance coverage for the former couple’s two kids. He also had to pay arrears. The lower court found the mother had no income and no support obligation. It didn’t find the mother had acted in bad faith.

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Often people assume that if alimony is awarded, a husband will have to pay it to his ex-wife. However, based on consideration of certain statutory factors, alimony can also be awarded to an ex-husband and a wife may be required to pay it. In a recent North Carolina alimony appellate decision, a wife appealed from the court’s award of alimony to her husband. The couple had met online. The husband lived in India but moved to the U.S. to be with the wife. They married in India, but separated while living in the States. During the marriage, the wife allegedly subjected the husband to emotional and mental abuse.

The husband sued for divorce and alimony. In 2015, the appellate court had affirmed the lower court’s grant of divorce but reversed its award of alimony. In 2016, the lower court entered an order that awarded the husband alimony, among other things.

The wife appealed the award of alimony. She argued there was no subject matter jurisdiction for the alimony award, claiming that the lower court was required to recognize the annulment she got in India in 2011, one month after the husband sued for divorce. The appellate court explained that neither of the spouses was domiciled in India when she got the annulment, and so the lower court hadn’t made a mistake in not recognizing the annulment. In North Carolina, foreign divorces and annulments don’t need to be recognized where neither party had domicile in the jurisdiction that granted the annulment or divorce. It noted that domicile describes someone’s established and permanent home, and that even if someone has more than one residence, there is only one domicile. Domicile is changed by actual abandonment of some other domicile, intent to stay in a new place indefinitely or permanently or physical residence in a new place.

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A 529 Savings Plan allows parents to put aside money for their kids’ college expenses under tax-favorable conditions. How should trial courts classify the money in a 529 Savings Plan that is created and funded during marriage when a couple is getting a divorce?

In a recent North Carolina marital property appellate decision, a mother argued that contributions to a 529 Savings Plan were a gift to the children, rather than marital property to be divided. Alternatively she requested that the court carve 529 Savings Plans from the marital estate by creating a rule to treat the property differently from other marital assets.

The appellate court rejected her arguments, explaining that the beneficiaries of the plan didn’t have ownership of the funds, and the people participating in the plan could choose not to spend the money on education and after paying a penalty could spend it on something different. Accordingly, contributions aren’t gifts. The court also explained that it didn’t have the authority to create a way to carve 529 Savings Plans from the marital estate. It reasoned that the General Assembly was the governmental body with this authority, and that its role was to consider the purpose of marital funds to determine equitable distribution.

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In a recent appellate court decision that discusses an aspect of North Carolina custody law, a mother appealed from an order that granted her and the father joint custody of teenage children pending the start of a reunification program. The program was supposed to fix the kids’ relationship to their father, which the court determined was damaged by the mother’s alienating conduct.

The order gave the father primary physical custody of the children after starting the program, while the mother’s visitation with the kids would be temporarily suspended pending the program’s completion. The order also directed that the kids go to private or public school, instead of being homeschooled by their mother.

The case arose in connection with three children born from a couple’s marriage. The father demanded custody when they were older because the mother had committed adultery. The mother responded to the father’s complaint and letter by taking the kids to South Carolina and cutting off the father’s contact. The father filed a motion for emergency custody relief, claiming the mother had a relationship with someone in Sweden and that she planned to go there with the kids despite his objection. He was worried the mother would take the kids and not come back. The court granted him temporary exclusive custody of the children in an emergency order.

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by Tina Ray, Legal Assistant

Growing up in a tiny town near Greensboro, N.C., I can remember being a kid and playing in the yard, getting skinned knees and bee stings.  That’s what we did “back then.”  I remember picking up pecans and climbing trees and riding my bike.  We had a rotary dial telephone.  What is that you ask?  It’s a telephone that had a dial with holes in that had a handset attached to it with a curly cord, and the entire thing was attached to another cord that made it work!  We did not have air conditioning until I was about 12 years old.  Window fans were placed in our windows to draw the hot air out of the house, and indoor box fans blew hot air around inside the house.  We had a gravel driveway, and I sometimes had to help fill in holes in the driveway with a rake or a shovel so we wouldn’t blow a car tire driving in and out of it.  Listen to this; we did not have a weedeater!!!  I can, believe it or not,  remember using handheld clippers and having to go around the outside of the house and flower beds and trim the weeds BY HAND!!

My grandfather used to take my sister and me to a nearby store, and we got to pick a bottle of Coke out of the metal cooler and play pinball while he sat around and discussed world issues with the other locals.  Getting that Coke and playing pinball was the highlight of my week.  Grandpa would give me a quarter to clean his glasses with a paper towel and soap and water.  A quarter!  My other favorite thing was going to Woolworth and my mother buying me a 45 rpm vinyl record that I could play on my red, plastic record player that I worshiped.  By the way, I was only allowed to get the record if I had been good that week, and if I didn’t get one, I was devastated.  We hung our clothes on the clotheslines behind our house in the mornings and took them off the clotheslines in the afternoons, and if a storm sprung up, we had to run outside and snatch them off quickly, before the rain started.

I am not going to reveal my age but trust me; my upcoming birthday is a milestone birthday.   In my mind, I’m still that little girl, but when I look in the mirror, I get a shock!  Sometimes, people say, “you should be thankful to have a birthday, think about the alternative.”    I am very thankful.  I am also very thankful to have air conditioning, a washer and dryer, a paved driveway, a weedeater and a cell phone that can play music at the touch of a finger.