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Family Law Reader

Family Law Reader

April 2002

Hagwood v. Newton, No. 01-1909 (United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, February 26, 2002): Even though the husband signed a prenuptial agreement in which he waived his rights in his wife’s ERISA plan, because the prenuptial agreement did not comport with ERISA’s formal requirements, under 29 U.S.C. § 1055(a), the agreement could not be enforced to deny the husband’s spousal rights in his deceased wife’s benefit plans.

Nelson v. Ramette, 01-6072MN (United States District Court, Eighth Circuit, March 21, 2002): The debtor husband was awarded an interest in his former spouse’s ERISA-qualified retirement plan in the amount of approximately $71,000.00 pursuant to a divorce decree and a Domestic Relations Order. After the divorce, but prior to receiving a distribution from the retirement plan, the husband filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy relief and asserted that the interest was either not property of his bankruptcy estate, or, alternatively, that it was exempt under either 11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(5) or 11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(10)(E). The bankruptcy court ruled that the interest was property of the bankruptcy estate and was not exempt except in the amount of $4,525.00, which was the remaining sum available under the wildcard exemption set forth in 11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(5). The husband appealed from the bankruptcy court’s ruling that his interest in the ERISA-qualified retirement plan was property of the bankruptcy estate. The Eighth Circuit reversed, relying on Boggs v. Boggs, 520 U.S. 833, 117 S. Ct. 1754, 138 L. Ed. 2d 45 (1997), and held that such an interest is not part of the debtor’s estate.

Gaudin v. Remis, No. 01-15096 (United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, March 11, 2002): The court addressed the parent of an abducted child may maintain suit under the International Child Abduction Remedies Act and the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International and Child Abduction when she relocates permanently to the United States after filing suit while residing abroad. The court held that because the mother had relocated to the United States, she was no longer seeking “return” of the children - she was seeking custody in the same country as the alleged abductor. Thus, her action under the convention was moot if she had in fact permanently relocated to the same state as the abductor.

Diaz v. Diaz, No. SC95534 (Florida Supreme Court, February 28, 2002): Attorneys, beware. In this case, the court held that the trial court possesses the inherent authority to assess attorneys’ fees as monetary sanctions against counsel for bad faith conduct during the course of litigation. Here, the former husband and his attorney were sanctioned for “bad faith in litigating these proceedings and caus[ing] a dissipation of assets and expenditure of funds in a wasteful and inappropriate fashion.” The trial court determined that “the husband and his counsel should be responsible for paying $40,000 of the wife’s attorney’s fees and court costs, leaving the wife responsible for $32,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs.” The Supreme Court held that the trial court has the authority to impose such sanctions, but only on specific findings of bad faith.

In re Estate of Gardiner, No. 85030 (Kansas Supreme Court, March 15, 2002): In this case, a male-to-female transsexual married the decedent male. When the husband died, the decedent’s son alleged that he was the sole heir because the marriage was void. The district court found the marriage void, and the court of appeals ordered the district court to determine whether the transsexual was male or female at the time of the marriage. The son appealed, and the Kansas Supreme Court held that the marriage was absolutely void under Kansas law.

(Ed. note: For a similar case, see Littleton v. Prange, 9 S.W.3d 223 (Tex. Civ. App. 1999), cert. denied 531 U.S. 872 (2000). )

Wooldridge v. Wooldridge, 2002 ME 34 (Maine Supreme Judicial Court, February 25, 2002): The husband and wife married and divorced, and then married again. At the time of the second divorce, the wife claimed that the remarriage of the parties nullified the property division, and returned the distributed property to “marital property” status. The court disagreed, and held that when the parties remarried, they came to the marriage with separate property that could not be divided again.

Champion v. Champion, No. 98-P-0808 (Massachusetts Court of Appeals, March 19, 2002): The husband appealed the valuation of his sole proprietorship, Champion Resources, which sold and installed new and used telecommunication equipment. His expert witness, a business appraiser and accountant, opined that the business had a value of $54,000. He arrived at that figure by subtracting the business’s liabilities from its inventory and receivables and making certain minor adjustments. The expert stated that he did not value the goodwill because, in his opinion, any goodwill was personal could not be transferred. The judge accepted the testimony of the husband’s expert witness and put a value of $54,000 on the business. The husband appealed, claiming that because the business was worth more to him as a stream of income rather than any amount for which he might have sold the business, he would not willingly sell the business no matter the sale price it might fetch. Thus, he insists that the business should have been valued as worthless for purposes of valuing and distributing the marital assets. The Court of Appeals upheld the valuation as reasonable.

Zeller v. Zeller, 2002 ND 35 (North Dakota Supreme Court, February 21, 2002): At the time of the parties’ divorce, they entered into a stipulation that was incorporated into the decree of divorce, which provided that in the event the mother was transferred out of North Dakota, such would constitute a material change of circumstances automatically transferring custody to the father. When the mother was transferred, the mother moved to relocate with the children. The father opposed, citing the stipulation. The Supreme Court held that such a stipulation could not bind the court, and that each relocation case had to be considered on the merits. “We conclude a stipulated divorce provision for an automatic change in custody upon the occurrence of a future event is unenforceable and the district court retains control over the rights of children, regardless of any contrary agreements of the divorcing parties.”

Pysell v. Keck, No. 010506 (Virginia Supreme Court, March 1, 2002): The wife signed an antenuptial agreement, but there was no specific language regarding each party’s rights in the other’s estate. After the husband’s death, the wife claimed her elective share, exempt property, and family allowances. The Executor denied the claims, arguing that antenuptial agreement was a waiver of all claims and that the spouses were permanently separated at time of the husband’s death. The Probate court found that the agreement’s recitation that it would be sole determinant of the spouses’ rights against one another’s property was an effective waiver, and the wife appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed, holding that the antenuptial agreement resolved only the spouses’ claims against one another while living; since there was no explicit waiver of claims against the husband’s estate, the wife had the power to claim her elective share and allowances.

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