The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, more commonly known as the UCCJEA, has been around since 1997. It was adopted by forty-nine of the states, D.C., Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. New Jersey, however, did not adopt its version of the UCCJEA until 2004. It replaced an older act, known as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, which was first put into effect in 1979 to assuage jurisdictional custody disputes. As I discussed in my piece “The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act and The Parental Kidnapping Preventing Act”, the main purposes of the UCCJEA are to prevent forum shopping, avoid interstate custody disputes, and encourage cooperation among the states. While the UCCJEA is effective at meeting its objectives, analyzing the issue of jurisdiction can be a very complicated one. The most recent New Jersey Appellate Division’s decision in S.B. v. G.M.B. illustrates just that. Let’s explore.
The case began in May 2011 when the defendant wife filed a domestic violence action; however, she did not obtain a final restraining order against her husband of ten years, the plaintiff, until June 2012. He pleaded guilty to a third-degree offense and began a three-year probationary term. One month before the plaintiff’s probationary period began, the parties were divorced. Four children were born of the marriage. Pursuant to the couple’s property settlement agreement, the defendant could remove the children from New Jersey to Ontario, Canada. Yet, before she could do so, the plaintiff would have to consent to the removal, conditioned upon the defendant’s “expressed and irrevocable consent that until their youngest child was emancipated, New Jersey would retain continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to child custody, child support, and parenting time.”
The defendant also agreed that any orders concerning custody of the children, support or parenting time entered by New Jersey courts would supersede any such ordered entered in Canada. Furthermore, she “expressly and irrevocably assented and submitted to personal jurisdiction in New Jersey, irrevocably consented to receiving service of any pleadings at her home in Canada, and expressly and irrevocably waived and claim or defense or improper service, lack of personal jurisdiction, improper venue or forum non conveniens or any similar basis.”
In August of 2012, the defendant wife moved to Canada with the children. In September 2012, the plaintiff husband filed a motion stating that his ex-wife did not allow him parenting time with the children over Labor Day Weekend. When the motion was brought before the trial court, the judge considered whether Canada was a more appropriate forum for the case to be heard in. Ultimately, he held that New Jersey would be an inconvenient forum and that Canada was in fact the appropriate forum to hear the case. After the trial judge rendered his decision, the plaintiff argued that setting Canada as the forum was not possible because his criminal conviction prohibited him from entering into Canada. Moreover, pursuant to the parties’ property settlement agreement, if this situation arose, the parties would have to agree on a reasonable alternative location in the United States for the plaintiff to engage in parenting time at.
The plaintiff selected Cortland, New York to be the alternative meeting spot for parenting time. He selected this location because it was about halfway between the two residences. Although the defendant wife did not argue for a Canadian forum, the trial judge raised and determined the issue without a hearing. On appeal, the Appellate Division reference the UCCJEA to decide the matter set before it and reversed the findings of the lower court. It held that New Jersey acquired jurisdiction over custody determinations because the initial order was entered into while the parties and children lived in New Jersey. Furthermore, New Jersey did not lose jurisdiction just because the children and defendant relocated to Canada. The Appellate Division also held that Canada was an inconvenient forum since the plaintiff was forbidden to enter the country. Even if he were to apply to enter Canada, there was no upfront guarantee that he would be allowed in.
The Appellate Division continued its analysis by stating that if Canada was found to be an appropriate forum, it was improper for New Jersey to decline jurisdiction. The court looked to the numerous factors under the UCCJEA to address the issues presented, such as if there is a history of domestic violence, how long the children have lived outside of the state, and the parties’ finances.
After analyzing the issues presented based on these factors, the court held that New Jersey should not decline jurisdiction. As you can see from this case study, cases involving the UCCJEA are extremely fact specific and can be quite complicated. Therefore, it is vital to obtain counsel if you are faced with a similar situation. My New Jersey family law firm is here to answer your child support questions. Thank you.