The Jurisdiction Determination in Child Custody Cases

“Where are you from” is a fairly simple question, especially if you live and have lived in a certain state your whole life. If you have moved around, though, the answer may actually seem pretty complicated. In casual conversation, people commonly resort to phrases such as “I grew up in…” or “I’m originally from…” in order to distinguish their “home state” from a recent or current residence. When it comes to legal jurisdiction, however, a much more meticulous approach is required. Where you are truly “from” will determine which court has the authority to hear your case and ultimately control your future.

It should not be a surprise that child custody disputes exaggerate any confusion surrounding this question, particularly when a child moves with one parent to a different state from the other parent. Although there may be multiple states with the authority to rule on child custody matters, only one state will take jurisdiction. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) governs jurisdiction determinations for all child custody and modification of custody cases and prevents courts from issuing conflicting orders. This law has been adopted by 49 out of 50 states (including the District of Columbia, the US Virgin Islands, and Guam) and reconciles discrepancies between the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act and the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, which previously attempted to provide these jurisdictional guidelines.

§ 93-27-201, Subsection (1) of the UCCJEA establishes the “exclusive jurisdictional basis for making a child custody determination,” which does not require physical presence of, or personal jurisdiction over, any party involved. Actually, these factors are not even sufficient to establish child custody jurisdiction according to part (c). A state only has jurisdiction over an initial child custody proceeding in the four situations summarized as follows:

It is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding or was the home state of the child within six months and the child is now absent from this state but a parent or someone acting as a parent still lives in the state

A court of another state does not have jurisdiction through situation (1) or a court of the home state has declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that this state is a more appropriate forum and

The child and at least one parent or someone acting as a parent have a significant connection with this state other than mere physical presence and

There is substantial evidence is available in this state concerning the child’s care, protection, training, and personal relationships

All courts having jurisdiction under the situations described above have declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that this state is a more appropriate forum

No court of any other state would have jurisdiction under the situations listed above

Since the UCCJEA designates the home state as the best forum, that state will always have priority in custody matters. § 202 says that this exclusive jurisdiction will continue as long as the state maintains a significant connection with the parties and the substantial evidence is still in the state or until all of the parties have moved out of the state. If an emergency situation occurs (i.e. a child is being abused or was abandoned) then the state where the child is physically located may take temporary jurisdiction to secure his or her safety under § 204. The case will then be given to the home state, transferred to another state that has grounds for continuing jurisdiction, or possibly even kept by this state if the first two options are not available.

However, except as provided by §204 for emergency situations, no court can modify a child custody order made in another state “unless a court of this state has jurisdiction to make an initial determination” under § 201 (a) or (b) and (1) the other state decides it no longer has exclusive continuing jurisdiction or that a court of this state would be more convenient forum or (2) it has been determined that the parties do not presently reside in the other state.

This synopsis certainly does not include every detail of the UCCJEA, but Attorney Matthew S. Poole has handled a countless number of these complex cases. If you have any questions or would like to set up an appointment, please don’t hesitate to call us. We would be happy to explain how the UCCJEA applies to your unique situation.

Written by Jessica Jasper, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2020, Mississippi College School of Law

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