While all Texas district courts have jurisdiction to hear family-law matters, the state of Texas may not have authority to hear your specific case. When filing a suit affecting the parent-child relationship (“SAPCR” (pronounced “sap-sir”)), whether Texas has becomes particularly important when the child has not always lived in one state. Courts will apply the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA” (pronounced by saying the letters: U.C.C.J.E.A.)) and the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA” (pronounced “you-if-sah”)) to determine which state should hear the suit.
Typically, if no prior custody or support orders exist, and if the child lived in Texas for the last six months, Texas has jurisdiction. Additionally, the suit should be in Texas if the child was born in Texas and is under six-months old (and the child or one of the parents still lives in Texas when the suit is filed).
Once a court signs a child-custody or support order, that state acquires “continuing, exclusive jurisdiction” over future modifications. The existence of a state with continuing, exclusive jurisdiction may cause issues if the party with primary custody of the child moves out of Texas after a Texas order was rendered—or moves to Texas after an out of state order was rendered. Filing in the wrong court could result in your suit being dismissed, no matter how far into the litigation process you may have gotten—which would be a frustrating waste of money and time.
The purpose of the UCCJEA and UIFSA is to create a “one order at a time” world and not have conflicting orders from different states. So, although the process may seem cumbersome when you simply want to fix a bad situation, the process serves a purpose and prevents future headaches that could arise from two different states rendering conflicting orders.
Once a state has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction, another state cannot simply assume jurisdiction unless no party continues to reside in the initial state. The first state must decline jurisdiction before a second state can assume it. For example, say you divorced in Texas, and the divorce decree included an order giving you primary custody of your children. Then, you moved to North Carolina with your children—while your ex remained in Texas—and you and the children lived North Carolina for years before anyone decided to try to modify the custody provisions of your divorce decree. Under the UCCJEA, before North Carolina can render any orders, it must—at the least—communicate with the Texas court to confirm that Texas will decline to exercise its jurisdiction. You would also likely need to explain to the court in a hearing why North Carolina is better than Texas with evidence of whether there was domestic violence that caused you to leave Texas, how long the child was in each state, the distance between the courts and the parties, the financial abilities of each party to attend each court, and the location of evidence relevant to the child’s circumstances (doctors, schools, extended family, friends, etc.).
Also, although UIFSA and the UCCJEA are similar in ways, there are differences as well. Any state can enforce a support order from any other state. However, only the state with continuing, exclusive jurisdiction can modify a support order, unless there is no one affected by the order still living in the that state. For example, if a Georgia court signs a support order, and then the mom and the child move to Texas, Georgia will maintain continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the support order so long as the father still lives in Georgia. Georgia cannot decline jurisdiction, but the parties can agree to give Texas jurisdiction under UIFSA.
For more guidance on your specific case, and to avoid filing suit in the wrong court, contact us for a consultation.