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Determining jurisdiction over a custody case. Montanez v. Tompkinson, 167 A.D.3d 616 (N.Y. App. Div. 2018)


Jurisdiction over a custody decision is typically determined based on the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) guidelines, which prioritize the child’s “home state” as the primary jurisdiction for custody matters. The “home state” is defined as the state where the child has resided with a parent or guardian for a continuous period of at least six months prior to the custody proceeding’s initiation. If the child has no “home state” or if there is a dispute regarding jurisdiction, other factors such as significant connections with the state and substantial evidence relating to the child’s care, protection, training, and personal relationships are considered.

Additionally, courts may decline jurisdiction if it is determined to be an inconvenient forum and another state is deemed more appropriate based on factors such as the child’s connections to each state, the location of evidence and witnesses, and the parties’ ability to present their case effectively. Ultimately, the overarching goal is to ensure that custody decisions are made in the jurisdiction that can best serve the child’s interests and welfare.

Background Facts
The subject child was born in New York in May 2016. Following alleged acts of domestic violence by the father in early February 2017, the mother relocated to Hawaii with the child. Subsequently, on February 7, 2017, the Administration for Children’s Services initiated a neglect proceeding against the father in Family Court, Kings County. Seeking protection, the mother requested a temporary order of protection from the Family Court in the First Circuit of Hawaii.

In response to these events, on May 3, 2017, the father initiated a custody proceeding in New York. However, he faced difficulties serving the mother until December 2017. Meanwhile, on August 24, 2017, the mother commenced a custody proceeding in the Hawaii Court. Unaware of the neglect and custody petitions in New York, the Hawaii Court, upon the father’s default, granted the mother sole legal and physical custody, along with child support.

The neglect petition in New York was resolved on January 19, 2018, revealing the existence of the Hawaii proceedings. Following communication between the Family Court in New York and the Hawaii Court, it became apparent that the Hawaii Court was unaware of the proceedings in New York when issuing its orders. The Family Court, considering these circumstances, declined to exercise jurisdiction, deeming Hawaii a more suitable forum under Domestic Relations Law § 76–f. The Family Court speculated that Hawaii would likely entertain an application by the father to vacate his default and proceed on the merits of the mother’s petition. Consequently, the Family Court stayed the father’s custody proceeding pending the reopening of the mother’s custody proceeding in Hawaii, leading to the father’s appeal.

Whether the Family Court properly declined to exercise jurisdiction over the custody proceeding, based on the determination that Hawaii constitutes a more appropriate forum under Domestic Relations Law § 76–f, despite the default orders issued by the Hawaii Court in ignorance of the proceedings in New York.

The court remitted the matter to the Family Court, Kings County, to determine whether New York is an inconvenient forum and whether Hawaii is a more appropriate forum.

The court reasoned that under the UCCJEA, New York was the child’s home state, giving it jurisdiction over custody proceedings, but found that the Family Court’s determination to engage in an inconvenient forum analysis under Domestic Relations Law § 76–f(1) was an improvident exercise of discretion, as Hawaii lacked subject matter jurisdiction to make determinations on the mother’s child custody petition.

The court emphasized that any judgment or order issued without subject matter jurisdiction is void, and raised concerns about the Hawaii Court’s failure to vacate its orders regarding child custody despite being informed of New York’s jurisdictional status as the child’s home state. Furthermore, the court highlighted that Domestic Relations Law § 76–f(3) presumes that a child custody proceeding will be commenced in the designated state, not that there already have been child custody proceedings conducted in that state, thus underscoring the necessity for prompt recommencement of proceedings in Hawaii to ensure all parties have the opportunity to be heard.  Additionally, the court addressed the Family Court’s compliance with communication requirements under Domestic Relations Law § 75–i, affirming that the record adequately documented the communication with the Hawaii Court.

Ultimately, the matter was remitted to the Family Court, Kings County, for further determination on the issue of inconvenient forum and the appropriateness of Hawaii as an alternative forum.

Custody decisions are inherently complex due to their profound impact on the lives of children and families. These decisions involve various legal, emotional, and practical considerations, including the child’s best interests, parental rights, and the ability of each parent to provide a nurturing and stable environment. When multiple jurisdictions are involved, the complexity of custody matters is amplified. Conflicting laws and regulations between different states can create uncertainty and disputes regarding which jurisdiction should handle the case. Additionally, coordinating legal proceedings across state lines adds logistical challenges and increases the likelihood of procedural complications.

In such complex scenarios, seeking guidance from an experienced New York child custody lawyer is crucial. A knowledgeable attorney can provide valuable insight into the relevant laws and court procedures, helping parents navigate the complexities of interstate custody disputes. They can assess the unique circumstances of the case, advocate for the client’s rights and interests, and develop effective legal strategies to achieve a favorable outcome.

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