California Court Determines Jurisdiction for Child Custody Dispute

One of the lesser-known legal hurdles in a family law case concerns the appropriate jurisdiction within which to bring your claims. Whether it is an action for divorce, child custody, spousal support, or any other related matter, parties must ensure that the court has jurisdiction to hear and decide the case. In considering the question of jurisdiction, courts often look at whether one location is a more “convenient forum” than another. Before couples are able to address the substance of their family law case, they must establish the appropriate jurisdiction. In order to move your case along as efficiently as possible, it’s important to contact a local San Diego family law lawyer who would be able to quickly identify the most suitable court for your case.

Issues concerning the appropriate forum often arise when the parties live in two different states. Section 3427 of the California Family Code provides that a court that has jurisdiction to make a child custody determination may decline to exercise its jurisdiction at any time if it determines that it is an inconvenient forum under the circumstances and that a court of another state is a more appropriate forum.

In a recent California divorce case, the couple argued in court over whether their child custody proceeding should take place in California (where the father lived) or Arizona (where the mother lived). Here, the mother filed for divorce in San Francisco in 2011. They have twin sons who were two years old at that time. In 2013, the court entered a status-only judgment of divorce, leaving related family law issues to be determined. The couple agreed to and signed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”), which provided, among other things, that the mother would move to Arizona with the children, and the parents would alternate visitation in California and Arizona. The couple further agreed that the San Francisco Supreme Court would reserve jurisdiction over all issues. The mother moved to Arizona with the children.

In 2014, the mother filed a petition in an Arizona court seeking an order concerning parenting time. The Arizona court refused to hear the matter until the California court declined to exercise jurisdiction. She then asked the San Francisco court to relinquish jurisdiction under Section 3427 to the Arizona family court. The mother argued that San Francisco was an inconvenient forum, listing a variety of factors including logistical challenges and financial burdens. The father raised the MOU and the costs of flying to Arizona to litigate the matter.

The family court granted the mother’s request, finding San Francisco an inconvenient forum under the statute. The father appealed, arguing that the court did not consider the factors set forth under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act. The court of appeals disagreed and pointed out that the court actually did weigh each factor and explained its reasoning accordingly. Furthermore, the court concluded that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Arizona was more convenient for the child custody and visitation proceeding. Here, the children lived in Arizona, evidence related to their education, activities, and health was easier to obtain in that state, and the mother had a bit more of a hardship in traveling to San Francisco.

The court affirmed the decision, allowing the Arizona court to hear and decide the child custody and visitation issues. While this is an unpublished decision, the underlying legal reasoning may serve to inform later cases in California family courts. As this case illustrates, it is essential that parties are fully aware of the laws applicable to their divorce proceeding. 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 and confidential consultation, call Doppelt and Forney, APLC toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748) or contact us through the law firm’s website.

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