“Jurisdiction” is one of those trigger words in child custody law.  It means the court’s power to make a legal decision on a particular issue.  In the child custody world, it means which state’s court system is authorized to act for a given family.

We live in a fluid society, and people move often.  Sometimes, the move is across the country.  Other times, it may just be across a river (like in the Fargo-Moorhead area).  But in either case, if there are children involved and court action is necessary, an important question needs to be asked.  Where should I file my custody or parenting time action?

Nearly every state in the country, including North Dakota and Minnesota, has adopted an act to address this problem, entitled the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).

This is not a matter of minor importance.  In fact, if a party chooses the wrong state in which to litigate, the result may be a void (thus, unenforceable) judgment.  It’s essential that you get it right.  Here are some basic rules:

Six months is a somewhat magic timeframe in the world of child custody law.  The state that can make an initial child custody determination is the “home state” of the minor child, defined as the place where a child has lived with a parental figure for at least six consecutive months immediately preceding the start of the action…however, six months may not matter if it is a modification of custody.

For example, a court loses its jurisdiction when it determines that neither the child, nor any parental figure, continues to reside in the state.  The situation is different, though, when one parent still resides in the initial state, regardless of whether the other party has been somewhere else for six months.

Confused yet? There are other issues to tackle as well.

What does “reside” mean?  Maybe a parent temporarily moves out of state with a child, but then returns.  Maybe both parents move from the initial “home state” and end up in two different states.  Maybe the child has spent exactly 50% of his or her time in two different states for the past six months.  Maybe one parent remains in the initial state, one parent moves away with the child for three months, then relocates again to a completely different state.

The list of examples could go on and on.  The UCCJEA contains multi-step analyses to determine where jurisdiction should properly be in these more complex scenarios.  Sometimes, it means preliminary litigation in more than one state to answer the jurisdiction question.

The point?  Parties cannot agree to waive subject matter jurisdiction.  The Court either has it, or it doesn’t. You should recognize the need to work with an attorney who is skilled in this area, to ensure the issue is handled correctly.

In case you’re curious, proper jurisdiction matters in divorce cases, too, though the analysis is simpler.  In either North Dakota or Minnesota, you need to be a resident for six months before you can obtain a divorce.

If you have questions about jurisdiction, PLM can help.  It’s not something you should tackle on your own.