Meaning of “Home State”
Arizona adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”). This law provides rules to determine which state has jurisdiction in competing child custody actions. Jurisdiction is based on which state has “home-state” status under the law. In the case of Welch-Doden v. Roberts, 42 P.3d 1166 (2002), the Arizona Court of Appeals addressed home-state status questions.
Facts of the Case
The parents were married in Arizona in November 1996. They moved back and forth between Arizona and Oklahoma during their marriage. Their child was born in Oklahoma in 1999. Mrs. Welch-Doden returned to Arizona in September and filed for divorce and custody on January 25, 2001. At all times, the child was with her.
On February 6, 2001, husband was served with notice of the Arizona petition. Two days later, he filed a petition for divorce and custody in Oklahoma. In the Oklahoma petition, he stated he had not been properly served with the Arizona petition.
On March 7, 2001, the husband appeared “specially” in Arizona to move to dismiss the Arizona petition. His attorney appeared by phone at a hearing on August 21, 2001. During the hearing, the trial judge spoke telephonically with the judge in the Oklahoma case. The trial judge ruled that Oklahoma had home state jurisdiction. The court found that Oklahoma had been the child’s home state within the six months before the petition was filed. Therefore, under the law, Oklahoma was entitled to jurisdiction even though Wife filed first.
The trial judge dismissed the Arizona action. The Oklahoma trial judge granted father’s divorce and awarded him custody. Wife, still in Arizona with the child, filed a special action and requested a stay of the Arizona order dismissing her action. The Court of Appeals granted an initial stay to review this matter. However, the court determined that the trial judge was correct in dismissing wife’s custody petition. It dissolved the stay and indicated that an opinion would follow.
Home State Jurisdiction under the UCCJEA
The purpose of the UCCJEA is to set up a way to prevent jurisdictional child custody fights. To this end, the uniform law narrowed the focus to one issue: home state jurisdiction. The state with home state jurisdiction determines custody issues. However, Arizona statutes contain two separate and inconsistent ways of determining home state jurisdiction.
One defines home state as the state where a child lived for six consecutive months immediately before the custody action. The other also requires that a child live in the state for six months. However, the six months need not be immediately before the custody action. The six month period must be complete within the six months before the custody action.
Mrs. Welch-Doden argues that the former applies. The child left Oklahoma four months before she filed for custody. That means Oklahoma cannot be the home state. Husband argued for the second interpretation. The child lived in Oklahoma for a six month period. That period was completed four months before the custody action was filed.
The Court of Appeals found husband’s position more persuasive. The primary intent of the uniform law is more certainty in resolving jurisdictional conflict. Therefore, the conflict should be resolved to strengthen the certainty of home state jurisdiction.
The Court found it clear that Mr. Welch-Doden’s interpretation, not Mrs. Welch-Doden’s, was consistent with this purpose. The expanded definition of home state acts to enlarge the more limited definition of home state.
The Court resolved the statutory conflict in favor of the broader definition. Home state jurisdiction does not require that the child live there six consecutive months immediately before the filing. Instead, the applicable time period to determine “home state” is “within six months before the commencement of the proceeding”.
The Court noted that wife’s reading would result in narrowing home state jurisdiction. It would also increase the number of jurisdictional disputes in competing jurisdictions. This is contrary to the UCCJEA’s purpose.
Best Interest Analysis No Longer Applicable
Wife also argues that the trial court should have considered the child’s best interests. However, this argument is contrary to the language of the uniform statute. The drafters of the UCCJEA found that disputes arose when “best interest” was used to determine jurisdiction. That language was intentionally omitted from the newly-drafted UCCJEA. Nor does the fact that Wife filed first give Arizona jurisdiction.
The rule giving priority to first-in-time filing specifies that the filing must be in a state “having jurisdiction substantially in conformity with this chapter”. Because Oklahoma had home state jurisdiction, Arizona did not have jurisdiction “substantially in conformity with this chapter”.
The Court concluded that the trial court did not err in rejecting Mrs. Welch-Doden’s position. It agreed with the trial court that Oklahoma had home state jurisdiction. Judgment affirmed.
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