New Jersey adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) in 2004, replacing the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) in an effort to facilitate cooperation between courts of other states to ensure that the state best able to decide a given custody matter actually makes that decision. The UCCJEA was recently at the forefront in Dalessio v. Gallagher and Jacobs, a new reported (precedential) decision from the Appellate Division.
To ensure that the state most capable of deciding a custody matter has jurisdiction to hear the case, the UCCJEA gives priority to the "home state." The statute provides as to the "home state" definition:
a. . . . [A] court of this State has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if:
(1) this State is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding, or was the home state of the child within six months before the commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from this State but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in this State;
(2) a court of another state does not have jurisdiction under paragraph (1) of this subsection, or a court of the home state of the child has declined to exercise jurisdiction . . . and: (a) the child and the child’s parents, or the child and at least one parent . . . have a significant connection with this State other than mere physical presence; and (b) substantial evidence is available in this State concerning the child’s care, protection, training and personal relationships[.]
b. Subsection a. of this section is the exclusive jurisdiction basis for making a child custody determination by a court of this State.
The "home state" is defined by the New Jersey law as "the state in which a child lived with a parent or person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding."
Dalessio involved a relatively convoluted factual history involving the States of New Jersey and Washington. Briefly, Jacobs – the father of the child at issue – was a lifelong resident of Washington and Gallagher – the mother – moved from New Jersey to Washington in 2007 and commenced a relationship with Jacobs that resulted in the conception of a child born in Washington in June 2008.
The relationship proved volatile and, aside from the involvement of dual temporary restraining orders, the Superior Court of Washington entered an order for a temporary parenting plan in March 2009. Briefly thereafter, the parties reconciled and, in April 2009, the same court dismissed the temporary plan without prejudice. Less than a month later, on May 17, 2009, Gallagher left Washington with the child without Jacobs’s consent and moved back to New Jersey. The day after her return, she filed another domestic violence complaint against Jacobs and sought temporary custody. Jacobs then moved two days later in Washington for reinstatement of the previously dismissed temporary parenting plan. His motion was denied and he was directed to file for a new plan, which he did on June 15, 2009.
Contemporaneously in New Jersey, Gallagher’s mother and sister (the Dalessios) filed a motion against Jacobs and Gallagher seeking custody of the child. On June 9, 2009, the family court in New Jersey exercised emergency jurisdiction and granted temporary custody to the Dalessios pending a determination of jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. The New Jersey trial court ultimately dismissed the Dalessios’ complaint, concluding that Washington had exclusive jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to determine custody.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s conclusion, finding that New Jersey clearly was not the child’s "home state" when the Dalessios commenced their action on June 9, 2009 because the child had only been brought into the state less than a month before. The Appellate Division also rejected Gallagher’s argument that New Jersey could assume jurisdiction under the "significant connection" and "substantial evidence" provisions of the statute under the premise that the child had already been in New Jersey for twenty-three days when the Dalessios filed and, thus, had not lived in Washington for at least six consecutive months "immediately before[hand]."
The Appellate Division noted that the child’s situation here was exactly that described by that portion of the statute providing exclusive jurisdiction to Washington because it was the child’s home state within six months before the commencement of the Dalessio’s action. To do as Gallagher sought, the Appellate Division opined, would effectively read the applicable language out of the statute entirely and run contrary to the premise that the UCCJEA seeks to strengthen home state jurisdiction certainty, rather than render it more convoluted.
As Dalessio demonstrates, the UCCJEA is a complex law capable of misapplication and confusion without proper legal representation to correctly interpret its language.