A court’s jurisdiction to hear and determine the fate of parties to a child custody dispute is a preliminary legal issue that should be addressed at the beginning of a case. There is a statute in California called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (the “UCCJEA”) that outlines the basic requirements for a court to assert jurisdiction. Assorted provisions of the UCCJEA have been the subjects of legal opinions in California, prompting courts to render decisions interpreting the statute’s language. In order to sort through the myriad intricate legal requirements of a child custody dispute, it is critical that you contact an experienced family law attorney who is fully familiar with the local San Diego rules and procedures.
There are times when a court may not hear a child custody case due to a lack of jurisdiction. In a recent opinion, the California court of appeals held that the lower court lacked UCCJEA jurisdiction and remanded the case for further proceedings in compliance with the state statute. Here, the child in question was born in 2005 in San Diego, but he lived in Mexico with his parents and went to school there. In January 2013, the mother brought the child to San Diego. Two months after arriving in the United States, the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency was notified that the paternal grandfather abused the child when he was in Mexico. The mother gave the Agency documents proving that the Mexican government was handling the matter.
In April 2013, the Agency initiated a dependency petition on behalf of the child because both of his parents were incarcerated. In July 2013, the court determined that it had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA citing the following factors: the child had been in California since January, he had no ties to Mexico, was in school here, there were no custody orders rendered in Mexico and no placement opportunities there, and the parents intended to live in the U.S. once they were released from jail. The court of appeals reviewed the breadth of the UCCJEA, pointing out that the California statute is the sole method for determining subject matter jurisdiction of a child custody matter.
The pertinent language states that a California court has jurisdiction in a dependency case if California was the child’s “home state” when the proceeding was initiated. Home state is further defined as the state where the child lived with a parent for at least six consecutive months prior to the beginning of the proceeding. The court of appeals found plainly that the child lived in California with his mother for fewer than six months. The court reversed the decision with instructions for the court to make an inquiry and finding as to whether Mexico intends to assert jurisdiction over the case.
Although this is an unpublished opinion, which may not be relied on or cited to by parties in future cases, there is much to be gleaned from this case, namely, the court’s willingness to adhere to the strict language of the family code. Parents who are facing child custody disputes are typically in unfamiliar territory. The outcome has the potential to impact parents and their children for years to come. The importance of consulting an experienced family law attorney cannot be overstated.
Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parents involved in child custody disputes for more than 20 years. Doppelt & Forney serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt & Forney through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
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