The new Netflix divorce drama, Marriage Story, is an excellent movie which has brought critics and audiences together – with divorce attorneys! Largely overlooked in the detail it deserves is the legal implications of Nicole and Charlie’s interstate child custody fight which develops when Nicole moves to California from New York with their son Henry.
Act 1: Whose Fault is It?
Nicole is the one who moves to Los Angeles with their son. She doesn’t have to – they are a New York family, despite her having been raised on the west coast. The movie makes a lot of their having married in Los Angeles and their son was born there, but for the past 10-years, they’ve lived and worked in New York.
The reason for Nicole’s relocation to Los Angeles is a job offer, she gets hired to be in a TV pilot. Job offers are a common source for needing to relocate interstate with a child. However, there is no indication that she can’t find acting work in New York. Surely there are other work opportunities she could have in New York, had she really looked.
Then she makes her husband’ efforts to see their son in Los Angeles difficult when he visits. She steered Charlie away from sleeping for the night on the day he’s arrived – even though he has no idea she filed for divorce. Worse yet, he’s served with divorce papers in her parent’s house. Then Halloween becomes a sad, lonely time.
Act 2: Interstate Custody
I’ve written and spoken about interstate custody cases before. Generally, when two parents reside in a state, like Florida for instance, Florida custody laws will apply. However, when one of the parents and the child move across state lines, you have an interstate custody problem.
That’s exactly the problem Charlie faced after Nicole moved with their son to California from New York. But which law applies? Historically, family law is a matter of state rather than federal law. So, you would look to state law in deciding an interstate case; not Federal law. As will be seen below, there are some conflicts with different state laws.
To help with confusion between different laws in different American states, the Uniform Law Commission is tasked with drafting laws on various subjects that attempt to bring uniformity across American state lines. With respect to family law, different American states had adopted different approaches to issues related to interstate custody, visitation, and time-sharing. The results were that different states had conflicting resolutions to the same problems.
To seek harmony in this area, the Uniform Law Commission promulgated the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (the UCCJEA), which Florida and almost all U.S. states passed into law. The most fundamental aspect of the UCCJEA is the approach to the jurisdiction needed to start a case. In part, the UCCJEA requires a court have some jurisdiction vis-a-vis the child.
That jurisdiction is based on where the child is, and the significant connections the child has with the forum state, let’s say New York for the Nicole and Charlie example. The ultimate determining factor in a New York case then, is what is the “home state” of the child. New York has initial jurisdiction to hear Nicole and Charlie’s case, for example, if New York was the Home State of their son on the date Nicole filed her case.
Alternatively, New York could possibly hear their case if New York was the Home State of the child within 6-months before Nicole filed her case, and their son was absent from New York, but one of the parents still lives in New York. This usually happens when a parent takes a child across state lines.
There is a good reason for the ‘home state’ approach under the UCCJEA, which has been adopted by most state laws. That is that Florida, California and New York – and the other states – all have a strong public policy interest in protecting children in their states.
Act 3: The Big Decision
Charlie does face a serious interstate child custody problem, and has a few weaknesses too. Charlie cheated and feeling guilty, allowed Nicole and their son to move to California for at least a year. We don’t know how long after Nicole moved to California she filed for divorce. Nicole has always done more of the childcare and has extended family in California – a luxury that Charlie doesn’t enjoy.
The stakes in the movie are extremely high for interstate parents facing a custody problem. The big issue is whether Charlie will need to move to Los Angeles to keep up regular contact with his son or be able to force Nicole to return their son to New York so she can timeshare there.
I won’t give a spoiler as to how their interstate child custody case is finally resolved. Instead, know that the movie does an amazing job of portraying the high stakes and anxiety involved in an interstate child custody divorce.
The new Netflix movie, Marriage Story, is great, and stars Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, and Wallace Shawn and basically follows a married couple going through a coast-to-coast divorce.
*Gage Skidmore photo credit