If the Parents of a Child Live in Different States, Which State Has Jurisdiction to Determine Custody?

Dec 02, 2013

When the parents of a child live in different states and are involved in a custody dispute, the first issue that must be addressed is which state has jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is what gives a state the authority to hear a case and rule on it. In inter-state custody battles, jurisdiction is dictated by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The application of the UCCJEA was explored in a recent case, Grant v. Peoples.

 In Grant, the parties had a child while they were dating. The parties never lived together and were never married. The child’s mother, Grant, lived in New Jersey and her father, Peoples, lived in Virginia and then later moved to Illinois. Initially, the child spent the majority of her first two years in New Jersey with her mother. However, around the child’s second birthday, she stayed with her father in Illinois for a period of five months. Then, for four and a half months thereafter, the child lived with her mother in New Jersey. Subsequently, for just under a year, the child again stayed with her father in Illinois. During that time, Grant filed for custody in New Jersey and Peoples filed for custody in Illinois. The New Jersey trial court judge held that New Jersey had jurisdiction over the custody case because “in the totality of the child’s life…New Jersey qualifies as a home state.” The father appealed that decision.

            The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that jurisdiction of the custody dispute was governed by the UCCJEA, which gives priority to the child’s home state. Home state is defined under the UCCJEA as:

The state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding. In the case of a child less than six months of age, the term means the state in which the child lived from birth with any of the persons mentioned. A period of temporary absence of any of the mentioned persons is part of the period.

Therefore, under the UCCJEA, a court must first find whether New Jersey was the child’s home state at the time the custody case was filed in order to determine whether jurisdiction in New Jersey is proper. In Grant, the Appellate Division found that the trial court judge failed to undergo the proper analysis according to the UCCJEA, and instead, looked to whether there was a significant connection to New Jersey. This was in error. The court explained that when the child’s mother, Grant, filed for custody in February 2013, the trial court judge should have looked back six months and determined whether New Jersey was the home state. Since the child was absent at times during that period, it had to additionally determine whether those absences were temporary. If the child’s visits to Illinois were temporary, New Jersey would be the home state; if they were not temporary, New Jersey would not be the home state.

If New Jersey was not the home state, the judge should then have considered whether Illinois was the home state. Only if Illinois was determined not to be the home state, i.e. there was no state with proper jurisdiction under the home state analysis, could the trial court judge conduct a significant connection analysis to determine jurisdiction. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded in order for the trial court judge to conduct the proper analysis in determining the child’s home state.

Grant illustrates the importance of determining jurisdiction before any other decision in the custody battle can be made. Sarno da Costa D’Aniello Maceri LLC attorneys have broad experience in dealing with jurisdictional issues relating to child custody. Accordingly, if you have questions about whether New Jersey would have jurisdiction over your custody case or any other questions relating to your New Jersey divorce or custody issues, please contact Sarno da Costa D’Aniello Maceri LLC at 973-274-5200.