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UCCJEA: Child Custody Disputes and State Jurisdiction

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) is used to determine which state should have jurisdiction in interstate custody cases. It is a uniform law, which means it was written with the intention and hope that each state would adopt it and create uniformity across the country.

How is Jurisdiction Decided?

For initial custody decisions, there are four elements that courts can use to determine where jurisdiction lies:

  • Home state
  • Significant connection
  • Inconvenient forum
  • No state is a vacuum

The home state element is the most important factor and is prioritized in these decisions. According to the UCCJEA, the home state is where the child resided with a parent or guardian for at least six consecutive months prior to the custody proceeding.

Significant connection is used if there is no home state. To establish a significant connection, the child and at least one parent or guardian must have a significant connection with the state that exceeds physical presence. Additionally, there must be proof of the child’s relationships, care, training, and protection in the state.

If the court that has jurisdiction based on home state or significant connection determines that a more appropriate forum exists, they may decline jurisdiction. Finally, the fourth factor in determining jurisdiction using the UCCJEA is vacuum jurisdiction, which states that a court may exercise jurisdiction if none of the other three qualifying elements exist.

Sulier v. Veneskey

The case of Sulier v. Veneskey shows how complicated child custody disputes can become when they cross state lines. The custody dispute was between Father and Maternal Grandmother. The parents, Father and Mother, separated in 2014. Mother moved with their child and got married, and Father believed that a no-contact order required him to stay away from the child. The no-contact order was lifted, at which point the court found that Father had made an attempt to locate the child during this time.

In 2020, Mother passed away in North Carolina, where she had been living with the child, the child’s stepfather, and another child born to Mother and stepfather. Eight days after Mother passed away, Maternal Grandmother moved the child from North Carolina to Michigan without notifying Father, who was living in South Carolina. Maternal Grandmother initiated a guardianship proceeding in Michigan, and Father filed a complaint for custody in North Carolina. Courts from both states held a UCCJEA conference, and Michigan determined that it was not the home state and was an inconvenient forum, dismissing Maternal Grandmother’s custody claim.

North Carolina determined that it had subject matter jurisdiction regarding custody. The court further decided that Father did not give up his constitutionally protected rights as a parent, so he was entitled to full custody of the child. Maternal Grandmother appealed the trial court’s decision.

The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to claim subject matter jurisdiction under the UCCJEA and to grant Father custody.