Child Custody Basics: What is the UCCJEA?

The federalist nature of our governmental system, which gives states the power to create and enforce laws that are not specified or forbidden by the US Constitution, means that oftentimes rules and laws vary from state to state. This can cause some serious complications when it comes to legal matters. For example, if there is a dispute between people in two different states with different laws governing the issue at hand, which state has jurisdiction? This can lead to more than one state claiming concurrent jurisdiction over a case, as well as conflicting court decisions.

Most states recognize that there are certain aspects of the law for which it is desirable and practical that there be some degree of uniformity throughout the country. With this in mind, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (also known as the Uniform Law Commission or UCL) was founded in 1892. The UCL is a nonprofit group comprised of lawyers from every state who are usually appointed by their state’s governor. These commissioners create legislation that is meant to be uniform and enacted by the state legislatures. The group has no actual lawmaking power and it is up to each state to decide whether or not to write the legislation into state law.

Child custody issues in particular can be extremely convoluted when it comes to laws across state lines, which is why the UCL created the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) in 1997. This act was meant to replace the older Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) which was inconsistent with federal law under the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act. Since then, the act has been adopted in 49 states as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. Massachusetts is the lone state that has not yet adopted the UCCJEA, and still abides by the UCCJA.

The UCCJEA gives exclusive jurisdiction over a child’s custody case to the courts in the child’s home state, which serves to minimize the use of traveling between states in order to continue custody controversies in hopes of a new court decision, and also discourages the abduction of children by parents while facilitating the enforcement of state custody decisions. The “home state” of the child is defined as the state in which the child has lived with one parent for six consecutive months before the start of the custody proceeding.

If the child in question has not lived in any one state with a parent for six consecutive months, the law defers continuing jurisdiction over the case to the courts in the state where the child has both “significant connections” and in which there is “substantial evidence” of the child receiving personal care, training, building personal relationships, etc. If more than one state fulfills both criteria for the child, the courts must communicate to figure out which has the stronger claim of significant connections and substantial evidence.

The UCCJEA also dictates procedure surrounding emergency orders of child custody. If the child is in danger, a court in a state without jurisdiction under the UCCJEA may grant a temporary emergency order to remove the child from the dangerous situation, until such a time as the issue can be argued in court within the jurisdictional state.

The UCCJEA is an excellent tool for clearing up issues surrounding state jurisdiction with regard to child custody cases. The Law Office of Kenneth J. Levey is extremely knowledgeable about the UCCJEA and well-prepared to help you with custody issues that cross state lines. Please give us a call to learn how we can help.