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C.T. v. J.S. & C. B. (1/16/98), 951 P 2d 1199
Notice: This opinion is subject to formal correction before
publication in the Pacific Reporter. Readers are requested to bring errors to the
attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska
99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
) Supreme Court No. S-8056
) Superior Court No.
v. ) 1SI-95-00024 CI
J.S. and C.B., ) O P I N I O N
Appellees. ) [No. 4931- January 16, 1998]
Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of
Alaska, First Judicial District, Sitka,
Larry C. Zervos, Judge.
Appearances: Helen L. Simpson, Law Office of
Helen L. Simpson, Anchorage, for Appellant. No appearance by
Before: Matthews, Chief Justice, Compton,
Eastaugh, Fabe, and Bryner, Justices.
C.T. appeals from the denial of her motion, brought
pursuant to Alaska Civil Rule 60(b)(4) and Alaska Adoption
Rule 17(a), to set aside the adoption of her daughter. We vacate
the decree of adoption and remand.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
C.T. and C.B. lived together, on and off, in a "marriage-
like relationship"from approximately October 1987 through August
1993. C.T. gave birth to a child (J.T.) in March 1987. [Fn. 1]
C.T. represented to J.T. that C.B. was J.T.'s father. In 1994 C.B.
and C.T. disputed custody of J.T. Blood tests revealed that C.B.
is not J.T.'s biological father. J.T.'s biological father is J.S.
J.S. has had no relationship with J.T.
C.B. and J.S. jointly filed an action to terminate J.S.'s
parental rights and declare J.T. adopted by C.B. C.T. refused to
consent to the adoption. The trial court held that C.T. was
equitably estopped from withholding her consent to the adoption
because of her prior representations to J.T. that C.B. is J.T.'s
biological father. The court then decreed J.T. adopted by C.B.
C.T.'s motion for reconsideration was denied. C.T. next moved to
set aside the decree of adoption under Civil Rule 60(b)(4) [Fn. 2]
and Adoption Rule 17(a), [Fn. 3] arguing that the adoption was
void. That motion was also denied. C.T. appeals.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The issue before this court is one of law. We review
questions of law de novo. Guin v. Ha, 591 P.2d 1281, 1284 n.6
(Alaska 1979). We are not bound by the lower court's decision, but
have the duty to "adopt the rule of law that is most persuasive in
light of precedent, reason and policy." Id.
Was the Trial Court Permitted to Equitably Estop C.T.
from Withholding Consent to Her Daughter's Adoption?
Alaska Statute 25.23.040 provides in part that "[u]nless
consent is not required under AS 25.23.050, a petition to adopt a
minor may be granted only if written consent to a particular
adoption has been executed by . . . the mother of the minor." No
one suggests that any of the exceptions in AS 25.23.050 applies in
this case. The only question is whether the trial court
permissibly circumvented the consent requirement by equitably
estopping C.T. from asserting her statutory right to withhold
consent. If not, then the adoption decree is void for lack of
subject matter jurisdiction, and should have been set aside under
Civil Rule 60(b)(4) or Adoption Rule 17(a). See In the Matter of
the Adoption of K.S., 543 P.2d 1191, 1194 (Alaska 1975) ("K.S.'s
mother was unwilling to give the consent required by
AS 20.10.020(3); thus the trial court was without jurisdiction to
grant the petition for adoption unless one of the exceptions to
consent enumerated in AS 20.10.040 were applicable."). [Fn. 4]
The test for determining whether a person may be
equitably estopped from asserting a right is set forth in Jamison
v. Consolidated Utilities, Inc., 576 P.2d 97, 101-02 (Alaska 1978):
There is a species of estoppel . . .
which precludes a party from taking a position inconsistent with
one he has previously taken where circumstances render assertion of
the second position unconscionable. The general elements required
for the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel are the
assertion of a position by conduct or word, reasonable reliance
thereon by another party, and resulting prejudice.
C.T. contends that a trial court may never dispense with a mother's
consent to the adoption of her child on the ground of equitable
estoppel. We need not reach this question -- the trial court
misapplied the equitable estoppel doctrine in any event.
The trial court found that C.T. represented to J.T. that
C.B. is J.T.'s father. It is upon this representation that C.B.
and J.T. may have reasonably relied. It is this representation
that resulted in arguable prejudice to J.T. No one suggests that
C.T. represented, at any time, that she would consent to C.B.
We agree with C.T. that "[i]t is just not logical that
the mother's holding out to her daughter that C.B. was her father
has anything to do with adoption." Since C.T. never represented
that she would consent to C.B. adopting J.T., the court could not
estop her from withholding her consent to that adoption. Its
ruling to the contrary constitutes error.
The trial court erred in estopping C.T. from withholding
her consent to J.T.'s adoption. Since the mother did not consent,
the adoption decree is void for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction. It should have been set aside under Civil Rule
60(b)(4) or Adoption Rule 17(a). We VACATE the decree of adoption
and REMAND the case with directions to dismiss the petition for
The trial court's findings of fact are inconsistent. They
state that J.T. was born on March 27, 1987, that the relationship
between C.B. and C.T. began in October 1987, and that J.T. was born
during that relationship. Given the context of this case, it seems
likely that J.T. was born during the relationship and that the
trial court mistook either J.T.'s birthdate or the start date of
Civil Rule 60(b)(4) reads "On motion and upon such terms as
are just, the court may relieve a party . . . from a final
judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: . . . (4)
the judgment is void."
Adoption Rule 17(a) reads:
A person may move to set aside the decree
[of adoption] by filing a motion stating the grounds for
challenging the validity of the decree . . . . [T]he burden is on
the party challenging the decree to show by a preponderance of the
evidence that the decree is not valid.
AS 20.10.020 and AS 20.10.040 are former versions of current
AS 25.23.040 and AS 25.23.050, respectively.