When Parents Live in Different States: Custody and Parenting Issues

By Ms. Mary Acevedo, Esq. | 87 ABW/JA | Nov. 24, 2015

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — In the civilian world as well as the military world, there are challenges to parenting a child when the parents live apart or are in the process of getting a divorce.  The issue becomes more complex when those same parents live in two different states as many military parents do. However, the most important goal of "long-distance" parenting is to make sure that the child has a strong relationship with both parents. 

It may be difficult to figure out which state court is supposed to handle the matter for parents who reside in two different states and want to make their custody arrangement into a formalized court order or merely want to resolve a dispute about custody or visitation (this is also known as "parenting time").  The answer to the question of which court will hear the case will be determined by who has jurisdiction.  In custody cases, jurisdiction is governed by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).  Jurisdiction generally depends on the following:

1. Where has the child lived before this time?
2. Where does the child live now?
3. Do any other court orders already exist?

If no court order has ever been in place for either custody or visitation, the general rule is that jurisdiction lies in the State where the child (and one parent or the caregiver) has lived for the last consecutive six months.  This is generally referred to as the child's "home state."  If however, the child is less than six months old, the state where the child was born and has lived since birth has jurisdiction.  This is generally referred to as the child's "home state".  When there is no home state because the child has not lived in one state for the six months required, then the courts will consider which state is the best suited, (i.e., most convenient) to resolve the matter.  In those cases, courts generally look at the "first to file" rule.  The state court of the first parent to file must make a determination of whether it has jurisdiction, and the other state court must communicate with the first state's court about the most convenient forum and factors such as whether:

1. The state has significant connections to the child;
2. The child has previously lived in or currently lives in the state; and
3. At least one parent is currently living in the state.

The first-filed court determines jurisdiction.  If the first-filed court accepts jurisdiction, then the second-filed court must dismiss the litigation in its court.

Once a state court properly takes jurisdiction of a case and enters a custody, visitation or parenting-time order, the court of that state may keep jurisdiction until both parents and the child move out of state.  But what happens when one parent moves a child out of the state that initially entered the first custody/visitation order, and the other parent remains in the state?  The answer is that the courts in other states are not permitted to change the custody/visitation order as long as the first state's court still maintains jurisdiction.

So what should you take away from all of this?  When parents live in different states, especially those separated by long distances, it is crucial that both parents try to support the child's relationship with both parents.  In this day and age, technology is key; frequent contact by telephone, email, instant messaging or even Skype may help the non-custodial parent to be a part of the child's daily life.  Even with young children, these connections may help maintain close relationships and facilitate parent-child bonds.  Remember, if the parents are separated or going through a divorce, the most important thing to ask is "What would be in the child's best interest?"  This is the standard the court will base its decision on in the long run.

If you have any questions about child custody issues, please contact the 87 ABW Legal Office at 609-754-2010 to schedule an appointment, or visit during Legal Assistance Walk-In on Tuesdays from 0900-1100.  The 87 ABW Legal Office is located at 2901 Falcon Lane.