Child Custody Determinations Under the UCCJEA (Part Two)

child custody paternity

In our previous post, we explained the basics of “home state” and “significant connection” jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. In this post, we will look at a recent Indiana case to show how these concepts play out in a complex fact situation.

Mother and Father marry in Indiana in 2011, and a year later Mother gives birth to the parties’ child.  Four months later, Mother, Father and child all move to Oklahoma to live with Father’s parents. Soon thereafter, Mother, Father and child got their own apartment in the same city in Oklahoma and paternal grandparents still provided child care. Two years later, Mother, Father and child moved back to Indiana. Three months later, paternal grandmother arrives in Indiana and takes the child back to Oklahoma so Mother and Father could work on their marriage. One month later, the child returns to Indiana. A month later, the same situation occurs – grandma retrieves the child and returns to Oklahoma so the parents can work on their marriage. This time, the child stays longer in Oklahoma, and while there, is joined by Father, who has separated from Mother. Mother files for divorce first in Indiana, and Father files shortly thereafter in Oklahoma.

To recap: we have two petitions for divorce in two different states – exactly what the UCCJEA was designed to prevent.

Father filed a motion to dismiss in Indiana and for a jurisdictional conference (where the two courts discuss how to proceed). Oklahoma found neither state had home state jurisdiction and both states had significant connections, so it abstained pending a hearing in Indiana. After a hearing, Indiana decided it had jurisdiction and heard the case. The paternal grandparents also intervened seeking custody and a hearing in Oklahoma. Indiana granted a stay pending appeal.

The Indiana Court of Appeals looked at the history of where the child lived and noted that on physical presence alone, no state had “home state” jurisdiction because the child had lived in Indiana and Oklahoma in the six months preceding the filing of the dissolution proceeding. The appellate court next looked to the significant connections test and noted that before the marital problems started the family established residence in Indiana. Further, Father left Indiana only two days before Mother filed for divorce – implying a forum shopping problem. The child last had established residence in Indiana, with family present, including maternal grandparents, uncle and cousins. The child was born in Indiana and the parents were married in Indiana. Based on these facts, the appellate court found Indiana had exclusive authority to make the initial child custody determination, even though the family lived together in Oklahoma for two years.

As this Indiana case indicates, UCCJEA cases can get complicated and fact specific; most rarely look this complicated. But the process is always the same – look first for home state; if no home state, look to significant connections. In most cases, home state is pretty clear and controls. Another important lesson: trying to leave one state to quickly set up residence for divorce purposes in another state rarely works under the UCCJEA.

If you have questions about child custody and the UCCJEA, contact us – we can help.

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