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How is Jurisdiction Determined in a North Carolina Custody Case?

North Carolina and almost every other state uses the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) to determine jurisdiction. The UCCJEA uses four elements to determine jurisdiction in initial custody cases:

  • Home state
  • Significant connection
  • More appropriate forum
  • No other state or vacuum

These factors are applied in a hierarchy, with home state being placed as the most important consideration.

What is Considered a Child’s Home State for Custody Disputes?

The UCCJEA prioritizes home state when determining jurisdiction, but what does that criterion mean? The home state is considered the state where a child lived with their parent for at least six consecutive months leading up to the custody proceeding.

Can Courts Decline Jurisdiction?

A court can decline jurisdiction if it finds that another state is a more appropriate option. In making this decision, courts consider factors such as:

  • History of domestic violence
  • How long the child lived elsewhere
  • The finances of the parents
  • How quickly each court could decide the custody issue
  • How familiar each court is with the facts of the case

The UCCJEA also requires courts to communicate with each other when there are pending proceedings in separate courts regarding the same issue.

Rook v. Rook

In a North Carolina Court of Appeals case, Rook v. Rook, the parties were involved in divorce and custody proceedings. Mother and Father lived together as spouses in Perquimans County. When Mother left the marital residence with the child, they moved to Wake County. They entered into a separation agreement, and then Mother filed a complaint for child custody in Wake County.

Both Mother and Father filed subsequent motions and other pleadings in Wake County. Mother moved with the child to Utah in May 2020 and filed a petition for custody in Salt Lake City. In November 2020, Father filed a motion for ex parte temporary custody in Perquimans County, where he resided. This motion was denied, but a hearing for temporary custody was scheduled for December 30, 2020.

After numerous hearings regarding the parties’ divorce and custody matters, the North Carolina trial court awarded Mother and Father joint custody. Father was given tiebreaker authority in matters of education, medical care, religious activities, sports, and other important decisions involving the child. Mother appealed this decision.

The issue that the Court of Appeals noted in this case was that the North Carolina trial court’s record did not include any communication from the Utah court noting that Utah declined jurisdiction or that North Carolina was believed to be a more appropriate forum. The appellate court determined that, without such evidence, the North Carolina trial court could not determine jurisdiction. Because Mother had lived in Utah with the child more than six months before Father filed his Perquimans County custody case, and due to the lack of evidence from Utah declining jurisdiction, the appellate court vacated the decision and the case was remanded to the lower court.