Due to the high mobility of our society, it is relatively easy for people to move from from one place to another. Sometimes, this move requires a relocation to another state. An important consideration for those contemplating a move is, how might this affect your family law case? If you have a case involving custody or placement/visitation, it is important to consider how moving with a child may impact which jurisdiction is appropriate for modifying and enforcing custody and placement/visitation. Far too often, parents living in different states will attempt to modify or enforce a child custody order without considering that only one court can have jurisdiction to issue a decision. If mom lives in Florida, and dad lives in Washington, which court has the right to render a decision? What if the original order was issued in Wisconsin, but nobody lives there any longer?
To provide clarity with how all 50 states should determine jurisdiction in child custody cases, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws implemented the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). Although not all states have adopted the UCCJEA, more than 30 states have enacted their own versions of the UCCJEA. In effect, the UCCJEA specifies which court should decide a child custody case when there is a dispute between two or more jurisdictions.
Before launching into a hypothetical to dissect the UCCJEA a bit further, wewill explain some terms frequently referred to in the UCCJEA which you may not be familiar with. First and foremost is the term “jurisdiction”. What is jurisdiction? In essence, jurisdiction is the power and authority for an entity to make legal decisions and judgments. In the context of the UCCJEA, we are discussing which court has jurisdiction over a child custody matter. Next is the term “home state”. A home state is the state where the child lived with a parent or person acting as a parent for at least 6 months immediately before the custody action was filed. The home state is important, because the UCCJEA directs courts to heavily prioritize home state jurisdiction above other jurisdictional considerations.
When analyzing the UCCJEA and applying it to your case, you may need to ask yourself – what is it I’m trying to do? Are you trying to modify the current orders, or are you trying to enforce them? It may be that you don’t even have the initial orders yet, which means there is nothing to modify or enforce. If this is the case, then you should consult with a family law attorney to determine how, when, and where the initial orders should be decided.
Since most individuals trying to tackle UCCJEA-related issues already have the initial orders,we will focus a hypothetical on modification and enforcement. For those unfamiliar with those terms, “modification” refers to an attempt to change the current orders. “Enforcement” refers to an attempt to enforce, or carry out the current orders without necessarily changing them.
For our hypothetical, let’s say that we have two parents, Harry and Susan, who were divorced in Wisconsin. Harry and Susan had a daughter, and through the divorce the Wisconsin court granted them joint custody and a 50/50 shared equal placement schedule. Two years after the divorce, Susan moves from Wisconsin to New York for a new job, leaving their daughter with Harry. Since Susan lives in New York, and Harry lives in Wisconsin, it is not feasible for them to observe their 50/50 shared equal placement schedule due to the distance. Shortly after she moves, Susan and Harry begin arguing over where their daughter should live. Eight months after moving to New York, Susan files a modification with a New York court, trying to modify their prior placement order so that she gets 70% of the placement and Harry gets 30%. Harry, not agreeing with Susan’s proposed modification, files his own modification in Wisconsin requesting that he get 70% of the placement and Susan gets 30%. The question is – which court has the authority to make the modification, New York or Wisconsin?
To answer this question, we have to consider several factors. Amongst these factors are (1) who still lives in Wisconsin, (2) where were the most recent orders issued, (3) does the childstill have a “significant” connection with Wisconsin, (4) where is the relevant evidence in the case available, and (5) has there been a waiver of jurisdiction by any courts?
(1) Who still lives in Wisconsin? In our hypothetical, Harry and their daughter still live in Wisconsin. This is the first and possibly the most crucial component to determining which state has jurisdiction under the UCCJEA.
Alternatively, if nobody lived in Wisconsin when Susan filed her modification in New York, it is likely that Wisconsin has lost its exclusive, continuing jurisdiction to modify the order and it’s possible that New York may be the correct jurisdiction for litigating the modification. Or, it would be just as possible that another state has jurisdiction, depending on where the child has been residing.
(2) Where were the most recent orders issued? In our hypothetical, the most recent order was issued in Wisconsin through the divorce. This increases the likelihood that Wisconsin is the correct jurisdiction, because a Wisconsin court issued the last order.
Alternatively, if a Wisconsin court is not the most recent to issue an order, whether or not it is the correct jurisdiction for Harry and Susan’s modification depends on why they were not the most recent court to issue an order.
(3) Does the child still have a “significant” connection with Wisconsin? Since Harry and their daughter still live in Wisconsin, it is presumed that they have a significant connection with Wisconsin through their residency. As such, Wisconsin is likely the proper jurisdiction to hear the modification.
(4) Where is the relevant evidence in the case available? Often, evidence is a crucial factor in determining the outcome. In the family law context, relevant evidence for a modification of placement may include testimony from the child’s doctors, teachers, coaches, childcare providers, or other family members. Although this is not the most important factor in determining the correct jurisdiction, it is a consideration. In our hypothetical, Harry and Susan’s daughter has never lived in any state other than Wisconsin. It is highly likely that relevant evidence will be more readily available in Wisconsin than in New York. These facts support the idea that Wisconsin is the appropriate jurisdiction.
(5) Has there been a waiver of jurisdiction by any courts? Sometimes, a court may determine that it no longer has jurisdiction to hear a matter. Often, this is because none of the parties live in that jurisdiction any longer, and thus their connection with the jurisdiction has been severed. In our hypothetical, the Wisconsin court has not yet waived its jurisdiction. As such, Wisconsin is the proper jurisdiction to hear Harry’s modification.
Due to the facts of the hypothetical, it is likely that Wisconsin retains jurisdiction over the matter, and Harry’s modification filed in Wisconsin will proceed in front of a Wisconsin court. Susan’s modification filed in New York would then be denied for a lack of jurisdiction. Despite this result, it is possible that the New York court may still want to hold one or more hearings on Susan’s modification while jurisdiction is being determined.
Cases where parents live in separate states are complicated for various reasons, and UCCJEA related issues are highly complex and fact specific. If you or a loved one are experiencing legal issues related to the UCCJEA, contact our experienced legal team here at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC at (414) 258-1644 for a free consultation.