Jurisdictional Nightmare for a Paternity and Custody Case

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Paternity on Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What happens when the parents of a child conceived in Missouri but born and residing in California try to establish rights of paternity, child custody and child support?

The facts of a recent decision of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals are fairly straightforward – only the legal analysis becomes a bit confusing. Mom and dad conceive a child in Jackson County; subsequently, mom moves to California, where she gives birth to the child, after which she and the child remain in California. Mom begins an administrative proceeding in California to establish dad as the father of the child so she can begin collecting child support from him. California orders a DNA test and determines dad is in fact the father. Meanwhile, as the proceedings in California progress, dad decides to file a Petition for Declaration of Paternity, Custody and Support in Missouri. It would appear we have dueling proceedings involving the same subject matter – paternity – but of course it is not that simple, because they do not entirely overlap, as mom wants only support, but dad wants custody.

Fortunately, we have several jurisdictional statutes that apply. First, the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) governs how to establish paternity. Second, the Uniform Interstate Financial Support Act (UIFSA) governs where to file a child support enforcement action. Finally, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) controls the selection of the state that has exclusive jurisdiction over child custody determinations. Unfortunately, in this case, the rules overlap.

The trial court in Missouri found that it had no jurisdiction over the child and dismissed dad’s petition. The Western District found otherwise. First, it noted that under the UPA and UIFSA, a party who conceives a child in Missouri gives a Missouri court both subject matter jurisdiction to determine parentage and personal jurisdiction over both parents. Hence, the trial court did have authority to proceed on the issue of declaring paternity. However, under the UCCJEA, the home state of the child is the place that has initial child custody jurisdiction, and that state is California. So the trial court properly dismissed the child custody portion of the petition. In the end, the Western District remanded to the trial court to proceed on the paternity claim, but punted on the child support issue because no court had issued a custody order.

So, after all of this, dad can continue to litigate parentage (and maybe support) in Missouri, while mom can continue to litigate parentage (and maybe support) in California. If dad wants any custody, he will have to file suit in California.

Is there a way out so that one court alone can proceed? Under the statutes, maybe. Because mom started the administrative proceeding in California first, under UIFSA that court would have priority to make a support award (see Mo. Rev. Stat. § 454.865). Also, once dad goes to California to file for custody (if he chooses to do so), California would have jurisdiction over all issues. BUT – the problem is one of personal jurisdiction over dad. Unless dad files in California for custody, the support claim under UIFSA will fail to advance because California lacks personal jurisdiction. So, if dad really wants custody, he has to go to California, which would then give California jurisdiction over support. If mom really wants support, she will have to go to Missouri, which cannot get jurisdiction for child custody.

This seems to be one of those situations where the goal in the UCCJEA and UIFSA of one clear forum does not produce an easy answer. Dad could hold his ground require mom get a support order in Missouri, and later dad could go for custody in California. Or dad could make it easy and just go to California for all of the proceedings. But, it may turn out that the child support order would be more favorable in Missouri than California. If that were true, he has an incentive to fight in two different consecutive proceedings, first in Missouri and then in California.

Moral of the story? Even the best collection of legal minds to create uniform acts cannot forecast every possibility!

If you have questions about paternity, custody or support and the other party lives in a different state, contact us – we can help.

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