Supreme Court agrees to hear custody case

Washington state parents who share custody across international borders know that these arrangements can be challenging. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a child custody case last week that will address international custody disputes and parental relocation.

At issue is the question of whether a U.S. court retains jurisdiction over a child in a custody dispute when the child has moved to another country with a custodial parent.

This case’s difficult custody dispute involves a career military officer, his ex-wife, who is a national of Scotland, and their daughter.

The officer’s career forced the couple to live separately for years. During this time, the daughter and her mother lived in Scotland, while the officer lived in the United States. After a failed attempt to rekindle the marriage about two years ago, the couple permanently split.

A state judge determined custody in favor of the father, and the mother returned to Scotland without her daughter. However, after the mother returned to Scotland, she sought and won custody of the daughter in federal court.

According to the federal district judge, the girl’s “habitual residence” was Scotland. “Habitual residence” is defined by international law pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Adoption.

The father appealed the determination of habitual residence. The 11th U.S. Court of Appeals found that since the girl was already overseas, the custody issue was moot.

Both sides in the case seem to agree that jurisdictional questions in international custody determinations are very complex. Going forward, this case and its outcome are likely to affect child custody outcomes where one parent is a foreign national and wishes to live with a child outside of the United States. Military divorces could be particularly affected because military careers so often involve living overseas.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in its upcoming term, which ends in June 2013.

Source: Reuters, “Supreme Court to hear international child custody dispute,” Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes, Aug. 13, 2012