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The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act is the law in Arizona, so it’s time you get acquainted with it. Don’t let the lengthy statute scare you away from learning about this important state law; it’s not as confusing as it looks. Arizona has perfectly good child custody rules and procedures of its own – and so do most other states.
So you may wonder why Arizona (and every one of the 50 states except Massachusetts) adopted this lengthy law. The simple answer is consistency. While each state’s laws might have worked well for making initial custody decisions, they worked less well when a court in one state was asked to enforce or modify child custody decisions made in another state.
This often resulted in competing child custody decisions in the same divorce case – with one state giving custody to dad, then a second state modifying the order to give custody to mom.
The Uniform Act makes clear when a court has the authority to enter, modify and enforce custody orders, and when it doesn’t. It’s “statement of purpose” talks in terms of avoiding competition and conflict between courts of different states, promoting cooperation between states, discouraging controversies over child custody and deterring parental abductions. But the core purpose of the act is to prevent competing custody orders.
Exclusive and Continuing Child Custody Jurisdiction
Since the court making the first child custody order gains exclusive and continuing jurisdiction, the Uniform Act sets out exactly when a state court has jurisdiction to handle an initial custody matter. Courts have jurisdiction under the Uniform Act in this order:
A state has jurisdiction if it is the home state of the child when the custody action starts; or — if the child is no longer in the state – it was the child’s home state within six months before the action started and at least one parent continues to live in the state.
Where no state fits the definition of the child’s home state, a state has jurisdiction if the child and at least one parent have a significant connection with the state – not just mere physical presence in the state – and if evidence about the child’s care, protection, training, and personal relationships is available in the state.
Where no state has jurisdiction under either #1 or #2 above, a state has jurisdiction to make an initial custody determination if it has an appropriate connection with the child. Note that if a child’s home state is Arizona before her family moves overseas because of one parent’s military service, Arizona remains her home state when she returns until she establishes another home state.
First Court to Act on Child Custody Has Authority
If courts in two separate states each have the authority to hear a custody matter under the Uniform Act, “the early bird catches the worm” applies.
For example, an Arizona court cannot exercise its jurisdiction in a custody matter if, at the time the Arizona action is filed, another custody action has already been started in another state having jurisdiction.
Initial Child Custody Jurisdiction Decision in Morris vs. Mandel
The Arizona Court of Appeals in the case of Morris vs. Mandell addressed the analysis for a court to determine if it has initial child custody jurisdiction to enable a judge to issue initial child custody orders.
The Arizona Court of Appeals began the case by acknowledging “an independent obligation to determine whether the [Arizona Superior Court] had subject matter jurisdiction.” See Angel B. v. Vanessa J., 234 Ariz. 69, ¶ 5 (App. 2014). Subject matter jurisdiction refers to a court’s ability to decide a specific type of action. Without establishing jurisdiction over the subject matter of the claim, a court does not have legal authority to rule on the issue presented.
Here, the subject matter being presented is child custody, which necessarily encompasses legal decision-making and parenting time. “Cross-jurisdictional legal decision-making and parenting-time issues are governed by Arizona’s Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, A.R.S. §§ 25-1001 to 25-1067 (UCCJEA).”
The final orders entered by the Arizona Superior Court are a “child custody determination” “which is defined as a ‘permanent, temporary, initial and modification order, for legal custody, physical custody or visitation with respect to a child.’” See A.R.S. § 25-401(3). “Legal decision-making is synonymous with ‘legal custody.’” Id.
To determine whether the Arizona Superior Court had jurisdiction to make a child custody determination, the Arizona court of Appeals must first decide whether the Arizona Superior Court had the authority to make an “initial” child custody determination. An “initial” child custody determination is “the first child custody determination concerning a particular child.” See A.R.S. § 25-1002(8).
The Arizona Superior Court has authority to make an initial child custody determination if Arizona was “the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding.” See A.R.S. § 25-1031(A)(1). Generally, the “home state” of a child is the state where the child has lived from birth, or alternatively the state where the child has lived with a parent for at least six consecutive months. See A.R.S. § 25-1002(7)(A), (B).
In this case Arizona was Child’s home state when the proceedings began in June 2020 because Child had lived in Arizona from birth until the commencement of the proceedings in June 2020. Therefore, the Arizona Superior Court had subject matter jurisdiction to make an initial determination of child custody when granting temporary orders.
Mother, Father, and Child had left Arizona “by the time the [Arizona Superior] [C]ourt entered the decree’s legal decision-making and parenting-time orders [in May 2022.]” But, the Arizona Superior Court continued to have jurisdiction over subsequent modifications of its temporary child custody orders because the Arizona Superior Court continued to retain authority to make an initial child custody determination.
Put another way, the Arizona Superior Court retained jurisdiction to modify its temporary orders in the divorce’s final decree because the Arizona Superior court continued to retain jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination.
So, even though Mother and Child left Arizona, Arizona never lost subject matter jurisdiction over the child custody matter. See § 25-1031(C) (“Physical presence of or personal jurisdiction over a party or a child is not necessary or sufficient to make a child custody determination.”). But see Antonetti v. Westerhausen and our article on temporary absences.
Therefore, the Arizona Court of Appeals concluded the Arizona Superior Court had subject matter jurisdiction to determine legal decision-making and parenting time in its final orders.
Inconvenient Forum for Child Custody Determination
If an Arizona court has jurisdiction to make a child custody determination, it can still decline to do so in certain circumstances.
First, it can decline to exercise jurisdiction if it decides that it is an inconvenient forum and that a court of another state is a more appropriate forum. The issue can be raised by either party, the Arizona court or the court of another state. Before making this decision, an Arizona court must allow the parties to provide information on all relevant factors, including:
- Whether domestic violence has occurred;
- Which state could best protect the parties and the child;
- The length of time the child lived in Arizona;
- The distance between the Arizona court in this state and the other court;
- The relative financial circumstances of the parties;
- Any agreement between the parties as to which state is more convenient;
- Where evidence is located, including the location of the child; and
- Which court is more familiar with the facts and issues in the case.
If an Arizona court decides it is an inconvenient forum, it will stay the proceedings on the condition that a child custody proceeding is promptly commenced in the other state. In a child custody proceeding, each party must give information under oath in the first court document filed, or in an attached affidavit, as to the child’s present location, all places where the child has lived during the last five years and the names and addresses of the persons with whom the child has lived during that period. The affidavit must also give information about any other proceedings relevant to the custody case, including domestic violence matters, as well as the identification of any other persons who claim the right to custody or visitation.
Modifying Child Custody Orders Under the UCCJEA
The Uniform Act’s central provisions give the court that makes the first custody order in a case exclusive and continuing jurisdiction over that order. Exclusive means no other state has the authority to act; continuing means that the original court’s authority does not end until it decides it should end. The court issuing the first custody order continues to have sole authority to deal with the case until one of two things happens:
- That court finds that the child and both parents have moved out of the state; or
- That court determines that it should no longer have jurisdiction because another state has more contacts with the child and parents.
Note that these determinations must be made by the original court, the court that issued the first custody order, not by the court of any other state. What that means, in practical terms, is that if you are party to a custody decree in one state and you move away, you must either return to the court that issued that order and ask for a modification, or else convince that court to give up its jurisdiction by establishing that the state no longer has substantial connections with the child.
Emergency Child Custody Orders and the UCCJEA
Of course, there are exceptions built into the Uniform Act for emergency situations. If a particular custody case involves emergency situations – for example, when a child has been abandoned, or a parent or a child is in danger – the court in the state where the endangered child or parent are located has the power to make temporary custody orders to protect them. However, in order to prevent more than one court from having jurisdiction, the emergency orders are always temporary orders.
The Act makes clear that emergency orders are intended only to allow a parent in danger to keep custody of the child while she returns to the court that first determined custody. When she gets there, she can ask that court to modify the original order. The court making the emergency order must notify the other court immediately if it issues a temporary order modifying a child custody order.
Registering a Child Custody Order Under the UCCJEA
A parent can register a child custody determination issued by a court of another state in Arizona by sending the Arizona court these documents:
- A letter or another document requesting registration;
- Two copies, including a certified copy, of the ruling to be registered and a statement under penalty of perjury that to the best of the knowledge and belief of the person seeking registration the order has not been modified; and
- The name and address of the person seeking registration and also of any person who has been awarded custody or visitation in the child custody determination to be registered.
When the court gets the proper papers, it must register the child custody determination as a foreign judgment, and give written notice to the persons identified as having custody or visitation rights. This gives them the chance to object to the registration or the accuracy of the information supplied to the court.
Enforcement of Child Custody Using the UCCJEA
Arizona courts have a duty to enforce the child custody orders issued in other states and registered in Arizona. The first step is for a parent to bring a certified petition seeking enforcement and attaching a certified copy of the original custody determination as well as the notice of registration.
The Uniform Act is very specific about what information must be included in the petition. The papers must be served on the other party. The parent can also ask the court to issue a warrant to take physical custody of the child if the child is in danger of serious physical harm or if she might be taken out of Arizona. If the court issues the warrant, the enforcement petition must be heard the following court day. The party losing a motion to enforce the order can appeal it.
If you need information about UCCJEA child custody jurisdiction in Arizona, you should seriously consider contacting the attorneys at Hildebrand Law, PC. Our Arizona child custody attorneys have over 100 years of combined experience successfully representing clients in child custody cases in Arizona.
Our family law firm has earned numerous awards such as US News and World Reports Best Arizona Family Law Firm, US News and World Report Best Divorce Attorneys, “Best of the Valley” by Arizona Foothills readers, and “Best Arizona Divorce Law Firms” by North Scottsdale Magazine.
Call us today at (480)305-8300 or reach out to us through our appointment scheduling form to schedule your personalized consultation and turn your Arizona child custody case around today.
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