Who Has Jurisdiction Over Child Custody

Parents seeking custody of their children need to petition the correct court. A family or other court (such as superior or circuit court) may only hear and adjudicate upon your custody petition if that court has appropriate jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is simply the right of the court to listen to and make a decision in a party’s case. Generally, courts adopt the posture that their jurisdiction is more limited, rather than expansive.

Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA)

In prior years, jurisdiction over child custody matters was often challenging to sort out and determine. There were conflicting state laws, case law decisions and, sometimes, even conflicts between state and federal laws. However, today, all of that has changed. All states have passed the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which is often referred to as UCCJEA. This law was enacted to help parents resolve disputes over child custody in the appropriate state’s jurisdiction. The act assigns jurisdiction for child custody purposes to what is called the “home state” of the child. Accordingly, any child custody case must be heard in the child’s home state.

Jurisdiction Determinations Under UCCJEA

Making a determination as to the “home state” of a child is not always an undisputed matter. There are multiple ways to determine which state is the child’s home state. The first way is to examine where the child and his parents reside. The home state is the location where the child has resided with a parent or guardian for six months, consecutively. That six-month period must immediately precede the commencement of the child custody matter. If an infant is younger than 6 months old, her home state is the state where she has resided since her birth.

If the child has not lived in any single state for the requisite six-month period, then jurisdiction is assigned to the state with the most significant relationship and direct connection with the child. In this instance, the child’s home state is one that can meet both of these requirements:

  1. The state that has strong connections to the child and one (or both) parents; and
  2. The state where the court can ascertain facts about the child’s life, such as care, protection, training, education, health care, religious education and personal relationships.

Once a court makes the determination that it is in the child’s home state, the court then has the jurisdiction to hear all child custody and child support matters. This jurisdiction is exclusive to that single state.