Tag: interstate jurisdiction

Interstate Divorces and Foreign Judgments

Interstate divorces can become a serious constitutional problem when you are enforcing foreign judgments. We recently won an important constitutional victory on appeal after a Florida divorce court refused to enforce a Missouri foreign judgment.

Interstate Divorce

Gateway to a United Country

A couple married in Missouri. Then they asked to borrow money from the Husband’s mother to buy a marital home in Missouri. The mother-in-law agreed to lend them the money for the down payment after the couple agreed to repay her in full.

The couple then asked that the Mother-in-law pay their mortgage payments and lend them even more money to renovate their new home they bought, with the same arrangement that they would repay her from the sale of their previous home.

They didn’t pay back the mother-in-law. Instead, they moved to Florida and defaulted.

The Mother-in-law sued them, and won a final judgment awarding her money from on the unpaid loan in a Missouri Circuit Court.

The parties then filed for divorce in Florida. The mother-in law was concerned her judgment would never be repaid, so she intervened in their divorce as a foreign judgment creditor to enforce her Missouri final judgment.

The Florida divorce court allowed her to intervene and enforce the Missouri judgment, but entered a new divorce final judgment slashing the mother-in-law’s Missouri judgment in half so the couple didn’t have to pay her back what they owed.

The trial court’s actions violated the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution, a constitutional clause which helps make us one country, not 50 independent countries.

Florida Interstate Divorce Issues

I’ve written and spoken about interstate divorce issues before. The typical interstate problems occur in cases in which two parents reside in one state, like Missouri for instance, then one or more of the parents and the children move across state lines to Florida, for instance.

Interstate problems can include enforcing foreign custody orders, enforcing or modifying family support orders (like alimony and child support), or enforcing foreign money judgments.

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, interstate alimony, and child support. 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) and Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (the UIFSA), which Florida and almost all U.S. states passed into law.

A major problem arises when one state’s judgment conflicts with Florida’s public policy. For example, grandparent visitation is an area of law in which Florida does not really recognize a grandparent’s rights, but many other states do.

A few years ago, the Florida Supreme Court the Florida Supreme Court held that Florida is not allowed to elevate its own public policy over the policy behind a sister state’s judgment.

Accordingly, a Florida divorce court cannot refuse to enforce a Missouri judgment for money damages if one happened to be at issue in a Florida divorce. But that’s exactly what happened recently in a divorce court here.

Sunshine State Meets the Show Me State

After the Florida divorce court’s ruling, we asked an appellate court in Florida to reverse what the divorce court had done. On appeal, a panel of judges reviewed the case.

We explained that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution creates a constitutional duty that U.S. states must honor the laws and judgments of the other sister states.

That is an important aspect of American federalism because it changes the various U.S. states from being independent foreign countries, and making them integral parts of a single nation.

This form of federalism has traditionally meant that one state in the United States may not modify or alter the judgment of a sister state (excluding child support and custody cases which can be modified under very limited circumstances).

In our case, no one disputed the validity of the Missouri judgment. Everyone participated in a full trial on the merits in Missouri. In reversing, the appellate court held that a Florida divorce court was prevented from inquiring into the merits of the cause of action or the logic or consistency of the Missouri court’s decision.

Because the mother-in-law appropriately intervened in the divorce action and asserted her right to enforce the Missouri judgment, the divorce court did not have discretion to alter or reduce the Missouri judgment or it constituted a violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The appellate opinion is here.

 

An Interstate Custody Marriage Story

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.

interstate custody

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.

Highly recommended!

*Gage Skidmore photo credit