California Court Defers to Virginia Court’s Jurisdiction Over Child Custody Case

usa-maps-1055633-m (1).jpgChild custody disputes tend to bring out intense emotions in both parents. This can be attributed to the notion that each party typically wants to spend as much time as possible with their children after the divorce. And while it is important to sort through the most practical and visible aspects of a custody arrangement, such as who the child lives with and which parent is responsible for making significant decisions in the child’s life, there are some less obvious matters that often must first be addressed. One underlying, yet important issue concerns a court’s authority in the first instance, to make custody determinations affecting the parties. There are state laws that specifically govern child custody disputes. It is important to know how these laws apply to your divorce or custody case. In order to protect your family’s rights, you are encouraged to contact an experienced family lawyer from the local San Diego area as soon as possible.

California law sets forth the conditions under which a court may exercise jurisdiction over a family custody dispute. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act is codified at Section 3421 of the California Family Code. The law addresses, among other things, a court’s authority to “make an initial child custody determination.” The law may invoked when the parents – individually – seek a custody determination from two courts in two different states.

In a recent California divorce case, Espinoza v. Espinoza, the couple attempted to settle their custody battle in both Virginia and California state courts. Here, the wife and children lived in Virginia from 2007 to 2010, and then in California from October 2011 or February 2012 (no clear date) until May 2013, when she moved back to Virginia allegedly to avoid being served divorce papers in California. While the wife was in Virginia, she sought a protective order for family abuse from that state’s court, which was denied. She then moved back to California, after which the Virginia court granted temporary custody to the husband. The wife then petitioned a California court to grant a restraining order and child custody.

The California court denied the wife’s petition, and she appealed, arguing that the court erred by not holding an evidentiary hearing, deferring to the jurisdiction of the Virginia court, and dismissing her request for a domestic violence protection order. She asserted that the court violated the UCCJEA by not making a jurisdictional finding. The court of appeals affirmed the decision, concluding that the lower court complied with the Act, in finding that California was an inconvenient forum and that res judicata operated to bar the action.

Here, the Virginia court assumed jurisdiction and rendered custody orders before the California court conducted its domestic violence hearing. According to the court, with respect to a waiver of jurisdiction, the lower court’s decision was in compliance with the relevant factors found in Section 3427 of the Act.

This is an unpublished decision, which means that parties may not rely on or cite to it in later cases. But the court’s decision and legal analysis could certainly serve to inform future family court action in this jurisdiction. And while this case presents a complicated set of facts, the outcome illustrates the importance of understanding how the intricate provisions of a state’s family code can affect a family’s rights. Roy M. Doppelt is a seasoned divorce attorney who has more than 20 years of experience assisting clients in San Diego and throughout the State of California with all of their family law needs. To schedule a free confidential consultation, call Doppelt & Forney toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748) or contact us through the law firm’s website.

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