Father with his young daughter

The perils of co-parenting across state lines

Divorce, Family/Kids, Relationships

Co-parenting across state lines can be tricky, both practically and legally. As a practical matter, families can experience the stress of lengthy travel for visitation. On the legal front, it can become more difficult to achieve sought-after placement, custody, and visitation arrangements.

For child custody, every state is different

As a fundamental principle, all 50 states are considered sovereign and therefore not subject to the rulings, holdings, and judicial oversight of other states. However, this autonomy can become highly problematic for divorced parents who live in different states, co-parenting as best they can. When such parents need of judicial orders relating to legal custody, visitation, and placement, a law known as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) determines which state will control the situation – and thus which parent will enjoy a homefield advantage when co-parenting terms are decided.

The UCCJEA was originally implemented to prevent a parent from hopping from court to court until a favorable ruling is rendered. To avoid such “forum shopping,” the law states that a child’s “home state” is the state in which any matters relating to custody and visitation will be decided. Sometimes, figuring out the home state is simple – such as when the child clearly spends the majority of time with one parent over the other. Other times, the home state is not so obvious, necessitating a more complex analysis.

If a child has not clearly spent the most recent six months in one state over the other, a court will look to other factors, including:

  • Location of the child’s daycare or school
  • Location of significant family ties
  • Location of the child’s medical providers, mental health agency, primary care provider, dentist, and the like
  • Other significant and relevant ties between the child and the particular jurisdiction

Also, the UCCJEA allows a court to take emergency jurisdiction over a child if a welfare and safety issue is apparent – which eliminates the need for any sort of home-state analysis.

What does this mean for interstate parents looking to establish an enforceable custody, placement, or visitation plan? In a nutshell, the parent enjoying home-state status will likely have a much more convenient experience litigating the issues locally, as opposed to the other parent, who will be forced to travel several times to appear in person (or risk facing a default). Further, the home-state parent will be in a much better position to summon witnesses, documents, and testimony from local providers than the parent in the other jurisdiction. Even in the friendliest of family court matters, the out-of-state parent can be at a disadvantage, with the home-state parent enjoying significant leverage in regard to parenting time and legal decision-making.

For interstate co-parents, maintaining the status quo without the need for a court order is obviously the best way to avoid the drawbacks that can stem from the UCCJEA. Parents that need a court order should try to negotiate and agree on as many issues as possible – before the parent with homefield advantage steals the show.