United States Supreme Court Weighs International Child Custody Case

As our country’s population continues to diversify, it has become more common for people from different countries to get married. Most people don’t consider the legal ramifications of divorcing and settling child custody issues with a spouse who is a citizen of another country. Because unexpected issues can arise in any child custody matter, even right here in San Diego, you are encouraged to contact an experienced family law attorney to help you protect your rights.

As we have seen in this recent child custody dispute between a United States soldier and a woman from Scotland, serious matters can arise when such a married couple chooses to divorce and attempts to resolve their child custody issues.

In this case, U.S. Army Sergeant, Jeffrey L. Chafin (an American) and Lynne H. Chafin (a Scottish citizen) were married in 2006. In 2007, their daughter was born. Later that year, Sergeant Chafin was deployed to Afghanistan and Lynne Chafin moved to Scotland with their daughter. In 2010, the family reunited in Alabama, where Sergeant Chafin was transferred. That same year, the couple sought a divorce. Sergeant Chafin asked a state court for custody of their daughter, while Lynne Chafin sued in federal court for the right to take the child back to Scotland, citing the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The purpose of the Convention is to determine the appropriate country to hear and decide child custody issues, namely, the child’s “habitual residence.” The federal district court agreed with Lynne Chafin’s argument that Scotland is their residence. Once the father’s motion to stay the decision was denied, mother and daughter returned to Scotland. Lynne Chafin filed for custody in Scotland and is awaiting a decision by that court.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Sergeant Chafin’s appeal, finding that because the child was already brought back to Scotland, the issue was moot. In declaring the issue moot, the Court had no authority to make a decision on the merits of the claims and essentially handed over jurisdiction to the Scottish court system.

There is great significance in this matter reaching the highest court in the country. According to a Huffington Post article, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear 1% of the cases filed, and very few of those concern family law matters. The specific issue before the Court was whether Sergeant Chafin should be permitted to appeal to the federal appeals court, or whether such a process would be futile.

During oral arguments, some concern was expressed about moving the matter back to U.S. courts and shuffling the child from country to country, in order to resolve the case, precisely what The Hague Convention seeks to avoid. Anyone would argue that the most important issue in any child custody dispute is: what is in the best interests of the child? Here, she has been in Scotland for the past 14 months while the parents have continued to argue the issue in their Country’s respective courts.

In many child custody disputes, both parents want primary custody and may lose sight of what is best for the child. Complicating matters in this case, is the vast geographical distance between the United States and Scotland.

The Court is expected to render a decision in the spring. And while this matter is not local to the San Diego area, the Supreme Court’s ultimate holding has the potential to impact international child custody matters that arise in California.

If you have questions about a child custody matter, you are encouraged to contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC . Mr. Doppelt is a knowledgeable family law attorney with more than 20 years of experience representing parents in Southern California. Doppelt and Forney, APLC serves clients in Encinitas, Linda Vista, San Diego, and Scripps Ranch. For a free consultation with an experienced and dedicated family lawyer, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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