When custody of a child comes under issue, whether in the context of a divorce, allegations of abuse, or some other dispute, determining which court should hear the matter is not always simple. This is complicated when the child’s parents live in different cities or states.
Obviously, some of the more difficult cases arise when parents live in different countries – if one parent is deployed to a military base in Europe, for example. The Hague Convention deals with international abductions and custody matters, but similar difficulties can arise between states within the United States. Thankfully the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) helps to answer some of these questions.
The UCCJEA is a uniform act which has been adopted by Arizona, and was enacted “[…] to avoid jurisdictional competition and conflict, promote cooperation between states, discourage the use of the interstate system to continue custody controversies, deter abductions, avoid relitigation in different states, and facilitate enforcement of custody decrees between states.” Welch-Doden v. Roberts, 202 Ariz. 201, 206 (App. 2002). In Arizona, the UCCJEA’s principles are embodied in statute.
Under Arizona statutes, there are four ways to obtain initial custody jurisdiction. If there is a “home state” in which the child lived within six months before the commencement of the proceeding, then that state likely becomes the proper state to hear the case and jurisdiction may not be too complicated. A.R.S. § 25-1031(A)(1). Specifically, the “home state” of a child – defined in A.R.S. §25-1002(7) – is the state where the child lived for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of the proceeding, including temporary trips outside of the state (for vacations and things of that nature).
However, as discussed in Welch-Doden, the definition of “home state” in A.R.S. §25-1002(7) conflicts with the adopted UCCJEA provisions. In Welch-Doden, a mother filed a dissolution of marriage action in Arizona. She had been in Arizona with the parties’ minor child for four months prior to filing the divorce action. Prior to this time, she and the minor child lived for six months in Oklahoma (where the father lived), three months prior to that mother and the minor child lived in Arizona, and seven months prior to that mother and the minor child lived in Oklahoma – a veritable spider web of residency and a jurisdictional nightmare.
Pursuant to the strict definition of A.R.S. §25-1002(7), the mother argued that there was no “home state” because the minor child had not lived in any State for six consecutive months immediately prior to the filing for divorce. The court adopted the father’s argument, however, that A.R.S. § 25-1031(A)(1) expanded the definition of “home state” to mean that if there was any State that could have been considered the “home state” within the six months prior to filing the custody action, that State would have initial custody jurisdiction.
The Welch-Doden court ultimately decided that Oklahoma held initial child custody jurisdiction because it had been the child’s home state within the six months before the petition was filed (but not the home state for the six- month period immediately prior to the filing).
If Welch-Doden teaches anything, it is that UCCJEA jurisdiction can be immensely complex – and the complexities don’t end with the issues above. If you recently moved to (or from) Arizona, there may be jurisdictional conflicts which must be resolved before any further custody determinations take place.