Modern American child custody disputes regularly spill across state lines, creating logistical and legal complexity, and sometimes confusion. To create an orderly process for resolving these conflicts, Connecticut, along with all other states but Massachusetts, plus the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands, has enacted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).
A panel of respected jurists creates uniform laws like UCCJEA as model pieces of legislation on topics conducive to interstate cooperation and uniformity. A state adopting a uniform law may adopt all or part of it and may make revisions. Connecticut adopted its version of UCCJEA on July 1, 2000. CT Gen. Stat. 46b-115 et seq.
Uniform interstate custody law
UCCJEA establishes a system for courts to determine whether they have jurisdiction (legal authority) to conduct initial, temporary, permanent or modification custody proceedings and whether they may, should or must exercise that power. The Act facilitates communication between judges in different states, reduces the risk of parental kidnapping and decreases the chances of dueling custody litigation in two different states about which state’s courts should decide legal custody, physical custody and visitation disputes.
UCCJEA does not give any court authority over related issues like child support or alimony but applies only to matters of custody and visitation.
UCCJEA applies in every Connecticut custody or visitation proceeding between divorced, separated or unmarried parents, but it is not often a factor because usually both parents and their children reside here. But if either litigant or their children are or have recently been in another state, or if a court in another state made the initial or most recent custody order, the UCCJEA probably comes into play.
Home state jurisdiction
Connecticut’s UCCJEA defines “home state” as that “in which a child lived with a parent or person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding.” The “temporary absence” of a child or parent does not reduce or interrupt the six-month period. A newborn under six months old has the home state of the parent with which they have lived from birth. CT Gen. Stat. 46b-115a(7).
The determination of a child’s home state under UCCJEA is important because it is the lynchpin of jurisdiction in several scenarios. Home-state designation can be legally and factually complicated, the potential subject of litigation in every UCCJEA jurisdiction. For example, how long is an absence from a home state temporary in calculating the six months?
A Connecticut (or other state’s) court has authority to decide an initial child custody determination if Connecticut is the child’s home state when a litigant commences the custody proceeding. Jurisdiction is also present if the child’s home state was Connecticut within six months of the proceeding’s commencement, the child is no longer here, but a parent still is. Other conditions involving the home state (and other grounds) may also create jurisdiction. See CT Gen. Stat. 46b-115k.
If Connecticut makes the initial custody determination, it normally has “exclusive, continuing jurisdiction” over custody decision making unless the parents and child have all moved to other states. Continuing and exclusive jurisdiction also ceases if Connecticut is no longer the home state, the child no longer has a “significant relationship” with a parent living here and “substantial evidence” relevant to a custody decision is no longer available here. CT Gen. Stat. 46b-115l.
A skilled and knowledgeable attorney is crucial for a parent facing home-state and other kinds of jurisdictional issues to help protect the parent’s rights and reach their goals.
Connecticut or North Dakota?
A 2019 case illustrates how complex home-state determination can get. The litigants were divorcing parents of three young sons and a complicated family history of contacts with both Connecticut and North Dakota. Anderson v. Anderson, 2019 WL 1569788 (unpublished 2019).
Briefly, the wife’s parents lived in Connecticut, while the litigants and their children lived in North Dakota. After the husband lost his job and the mother learned her employer planned to downsize, they planned to relocate. On a vacation to Connecticut, the husband had a mental health crisis and threatened to harm the children. The mother refused to leave Connecticut with the children and accepted a job offer at Wesleyan University.
The father filed for divorce in North Dakota, the wife in Connecticut. The Connecticut Superior Court determined that it did not have UCCJEA power to decide the custody dispute, but that North Dakota did as the children’s home state when the litigants each filed their divorce petitions.
The father argued that North Dakota was the home state and not Connecticut, where the children had only been for a month when the divorces commenced. The mother argued that neither state was a home state for the children because of the month in Connecticut. Presumably, she meant that the North Dakota home-status had ended with that move to Connecticut, but that they had not earned it there either because it had not yet been six months.
There was no dispute that Connecticut – where the kids had not lived for six months – was not the home state. The court found that their previous two-year stay in North Dakota established home-state status there. The month-long Connecticut vacation, even though it turned into a new residential state less than a week before the mother’s filing, had been a temporary absence from North Dakota, where at that time the mother intended to return to North Dakota. Connecticut would not become the home state until the children had been there six months.
Importantly, the court explained that the six-month period did not necessarily require a continuous six months of physical presence in the home state to. UCCJEA allows a temporary absence to “[count] as part of the [six-month] period …” so the month in Connecticut was a temporary absence that did not terminate North Dakota’s home-state status.
For Connecticut to decide the custody issues, North Dakota would have had to decline jurisdiction, which it had not, so the Superior Court dismissed those matters. However, it retained the rest of the dissolution of marriage issues as jurisdiction over the divorce was proper outside of custody.
This blog only touches on the myriad of UCCJEA issues. There are other bases for jurisdiction as well as exceptions to those bases, custody-order enforcement rules, and defenses to jurisdiction like forum inconvenience or the bad conduct of a parent. We will continue to provide information about other issues in interstate custody matters.
Connecticut residents may face interstate custody and visitation issues due to our proximity to out-of-state metropolitan areas like New York City and Providence. People who live here may have family, friends or jobs in nearby states, and when parents separate, those connections may draw a parent over the state line. In addition, COVID-19 created conditions in which kids may have stayed in quarantine with one parent longer than their custody order provided, spent unplanned time with a parent who could facilitate remote learning or experienced another related diversion from the terms of a custody or visitation order.
Anyone who faces interstate custody issues in a divorce or separation, or who is an unmarried parent in a custody dispute, should seek the representation of an experienced family lawyer as soon as possible. Whether you are in Connecticut, plan to move to another state or face a Connecticut custody proceeding in another state – or if the other parent lives in a different state, it is wise to consult with a knowledgeable lawyer.