Who Decides Custody Issues When Parents Live in Different States? In re T.J.

January 1, 2013, by

In a recent ruling in the matter of In re T.J., the Second District Court of Appeals tackled an important question that often arises in California child custody cases: which court has jurisdiction to consider a custody matter when the parents live in different states?

659603_-us_map-.jpgRJ and AJ married in Texas in 2001 and had a son, TJ, two years later. The couple split in 2004 and AJ moved to New Jersey with the child. The parents obtained a divorce in Texas in 2007. Through mediation, they reached a custody agreement under which AJ was declared the "Sole Managing Conservator" of T.J., with the right to decide his primary residence while RJ was given detailed visitation rights. RJ talked to TJ over the phone regularly and the child spent long stretches of the summer in Texas with his father.

After living together in New Jersey for several years, AJ and the child moved to California in 2011. The move was in part intended to help AJ cope with depression, her thinking being that the weather and a location change would improve her general mood. A few months after the move, however, AJ checked herself into a clinic with depression and thoughts of suicide. A hospital social worker referred TJ to the L.A. Department of Children and Family Services because AJ was unable to make other arrangements for him while she was being treated. AJ later completed her treatment.

The Department filed a petition in state court pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, which gives courts jurisdiction to ajudicate matters concerning a minor child who has suffered or is at substantial risk of suffering "serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of his or her parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child." RJ then filed a motion seeking custody. The court later ordered that TJ be placed in his mother's home under Department supervision.

On appeal, the Second District reversed the decision, finding that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to issue it. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which has been adopted as law in both California and Texas, "is the exclusive method for determining the proper forum in custody cases involving other jurisdictions and governs juvenile dependency proceedings," the court explained. Because the original decision regarding TJ's custody was rendered by the Texas court, that court maintained exclusive jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to decide any further custody-related issues.

Although the Act allows another court to issue a temporary, emergency custody order in certain situations, the court found that the circumstances were not sufficient to support such an order in this case. Furthermore, the lower court's ruling was indefinite, rather than of the temporary variety contemplated under the emergency provision.

As a result, the court vacated the lower court's decision and dismissed the Department's petition.

In our highly mobile society, jurisdiction is just one of the many complicated issues that can arise in divorce and custody matters, particularly when the parties live in different states. With offices throughout the region, Bay Area divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes has years of experience handling these issues and focuses on providing innovative legal tools to resolve family law disputes.

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