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Monday, January 25, 2010

Child Custody and International Law

A recent case in New York highlights some interesting points about child custody cases involving international law. In Sanjuan v. Sanjuan, the courts granted the father's motion to dismiss a divorce and custody action in the state of New York, stating that the appropriate jurisdiction for the divorce action was the Philippines.

This case involves various aspects of international law, as well as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA). Under the terms of the UCCJA, a child's "home state" is defined as the state (in this case, the country) where the child has legally resided for at least the past six months. The important term here is the word "legally." If the child were kidnapped or otherwise illegally removed from her home state, her new home state would not be recognized as a legal jurisdiction for a divorce action.

In this particular situation, the father had moved with his daughter to the Philippines approximately 13 months ago and proceeded to initiate a divorce action over there. Shortly thereafter, the wife tried to file for divorce in New York, but her original action was dismissed for failure to obtain proper jurisdiction. In other words, she failed to serve her husband properly with a summons in the Philippines.

Since there was no prior custody order and the mother knew of her child's whereabouts, the father left New York with his daughter legally. The mother then failed to commence a custody action within the required six month period (her original action was dismissed, and she did not bring another one until a year later). Once their daughter's residency had passed the six month mark without a valid filing for divorce and custody in New York, her legal residency became the Philippines.

As a result, the courts ruled that the mother's long-delayed action in New York should be dismissed in favor of the father's action previously filed in the Philippines. Generally, the courts do not favor competing actions seeking the same relief, and they will always try to find some statutory mandate to resolve the conflict. In this case, the UCCJA provided the proper legal guidelines.

This particular case was brought and decided in the New York courts. The Philippine court had nothing to do with this decision, although they will undoubtedly have the responsibility of ultimately deciding which parent gets legal custody over their child.

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