Custody and Visitation Issues Regarding Children Living in Different States

On January 24, 2014, the Kentucky Court of Appeals issued an important decision that will be published concerning custody and visitation issues regarding children living in different states.  That case is Donald G. Ellis v. Teresa Ellis, Kentucky Court of Appeals Case No. 2013-CA-00815-ME.  Specifically, the case involved an underlying divorce decree entered by an Indiana Circuit Court in February 2012.  During the divorce proceedings, the parties agreed to split custody of their two children, with the father having primary custody of the son and the mother having primary custody of the daughter.  Just before the decree was entered, however, the father and son moved to Livingston, Kentucky, and the mother and daughter moved to Maricopa County, Arizona.  Soon thereafter, the father filed a petition in the Livingston Circuit Court seeking to modify the terms of custody and visitation for both children.  The mother filed a similar petition in the Superior Court in Maricopa County, Arizona.  Because neither Kentucky nor Arizona entered the initial divorce decree or custody order, and since the son never resided in Arizona and the daughter never resided in Kentucky, neither of those states had continuing jurisdiction over both children.  The Livingston Circuit Court in Kentucky considered the father’s motion and concluded that dividing jurisdiction over the two children would be contrary to the “inconvenient forum” provision of the Kentucky Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (KRS 403.834(2)), and deferred jurisdiction over the son to Arizona as the more convenient forum.  The father appealed that decision to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Based on these facts, the Kentucky Court of Appeals first noted that Kentucky was the home state of the son and Arizona was the home state of the daughter, and further clarified that the only issue in the case was whether Kentucky should decline to exercise jurisdiction because Arizona was a more appropriate forum over both children.  Applying the “all relevant factors” test of KRS 403.834(2), the Court of Appeals emphasized that the son had resided in Kentucky for about a year, that all the evidence related to the son was located in Kentucky, that the son had no connection to Arizona whatsoever other than the mother and the sister, and that both parties would be equally inconvenienced by having to travel to the other state.  Distinguishing the trial court’s reliance on Wallace vs. Wallace, 224 S.W. 3d 587 (Ky., 2007) and its dicta language that splitting jurisdiction between two states is inconsistent with the purposes of the UCCJEA and should be avoided, the Court of Appeals contrasted the case before it as involving a situation where each child had never resided in the other state.  Based on that and all of the other facts and circumstances that were present, the Court of Appeals concluded and held that the “home state” requirements of KRS 403.822(1) and the “all relevant factors” criteria set out in KRS 403.834(2) must control over the general policy to avoid splitting jurisdiction in custody matters.  Because Kentucky was clearly the son’s current home state, the father would be placed at a significant disadvantage if he were forced to litigate custody and visitation issues relating to his son in Arizona.  Arizona also had no connection to the son and no relevant evidence about the son located in that state.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Livingston Circuit Court’s decision to decline modification jurisdiction in favor of Arizona was “arbitrary, unreasonable, unfair or unsupported by sound legal principles.”  Commonwealth v. English, 993 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Ky., 1999).  In other words, the specific “home state” provisions of KRS 403.822 and the factors listed in KRS 403.834(2) to determine the appropriate forum controlled over the more general policy against splitting custody matters between two states.  The Order of the Kentucky trial court was reversed and the matter was remanded to the Livingston Circuit Court for further proceedings on the merits of the father’s petition to modify the custody and visitation provisions of the decree relating to the parties’ son.

While this recent decision by the Kentucky Court of Appeals may involve unusual facts, it could be significant and even decisive for any family law litigants or potential litigants dealing with a situation where their former spouse is currently living in another state with one or more of their shared children and disputes concerning custody and visitation over those children arise.

If you have any questions about this Ellis v. Ellis decision, any other family law or domestic relations matters, or any other pressing issues, please contact Alan Zaring, David Sullivan, or Neil Hackworth at Zaring & Sullivan Law Office via e-mail or at (502) 845-2222.  We are here to address all of your legal needs in the Shelby and Henry County Kentucky and surrounding areas.  Thank you for visiting the Zaring & Sullivan Law Blog, and please check back frequently for other important updates and information.