Interstate Custody Disputes

America is a very mobile society.  Decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find families who lived in the same town or state for generations.  Today this is very rare.  People often move from one state to another for a variety of reasons, such as obtaining new employment, attending school, or to be closer to extended family.  In families where custody issues arise, this can raise serious and complex legal issues over jurisdiction.

Washington state has the legal authority (jurisdiction) over custody issues if

  • The child has always lived in Washington, and
  • No other state, tribal court, or foreign country has made a custody order about the child.

If another court has already made a custody decision about the child, the Washington court will ask:

  • Does either parent or the child still live in the state that made that decision?
  • If so, did that court have child custody jurisdiction when it made the order?
  • Did the parties in that case have proper notice and the chance to be heard?
  • Is Washington a more convenient forum for issues of custody to be resolved?

If there is no earlier custody decision:

  • Was Washington the child’s “home state” when the case was filed?
  • Has a case been filed in another state with home state jurisdiction?
  • Does Washington have emergency jurisdiction to make orders that protect the child, at least on a temporary basis?

Washington state is considered the “home state” if

  1. The child has lived in Washington with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least the last six consecutive months (six months in a row) before your court case is filed; OR
  2. The child is less than six months old and has lived in Washington with a parent or a person acting as a parent since birth at the time your court case is filed; OR
  3. Washington was the child’s home state (either (1) or (2) were true) within six months before the court case is filed, and one parent or person acting as a parent has continued to live in Washington since the child left the state.

Interstate custody issues can be very complicated and often depend upon the specific facts of each situation. Consider the following two examples:

Example 1:  Parents married in Washington in 2002 where the child was born.  They later moved to California in 2005.  They have lived there for six years. The parents separate, and no custody order was entered at that time. Mother and child move to Everett, Washington in 2015.  Five months after the mother and child left California, father files for custody in California, where he still lives. Mother receives the California court papers in Everett.

Result:  California remains the child’s home state.  California is the only state that can make the permanent custody decision, unless it declines jurisdiction. The mother may be able to ask California to decline jurisdiction. If it does, Washington may decide custody.

Example 2:  Parents were married in Washington in 2008 where the child was born.  The parents later divorce in Washington state and a parenting plan is established in Washington state.  Seven months ago, the father moves to Idaho with the child.  Three months later, the mother moves to Georgia.  Now a parent wants to modify the parenting plan.

Result:  Idaho now has jurisdiction to modify because: 1) Washington lost its exclusive continuing jurisdiction and
2) Idaho has now become the home state of the child.

As one can see, interstate custody issues can be very complex.  If you have a situation involving multiple states and a custody conflict, please call our office for a consultation.