One of the first decisions that needs to be made in a divorce case, is where to file the petition for dissolution of marriage (or other family law action). For some, our response is very straightforward: if the children and both spouses have all lived in the same county for ten years, then it is likely that they should file in that county. If only all jurisdictional question were all that easy! In reality, jurisdiction – especially over issues relating to children – can be one of the most difficult issues in family law. While this article does not intend to cover all issues related to jurisdiction in family law cases, it does hope to provide an introduction to the concept. Jurisdictional issues can be very fact intensive and each set of circumstances may render a different result. It is advisable to discuss this issue with a family law attorney. We would be honored if you choose us.
Jurisdiction is the court’s ability to make binding decisions regarding an issue. If the court has jurisdiction (there are two types, but for these purposes we will assume the court has both types), the court is able to issue orders (ex. parenting plan, decree of dissolution, temporary orders, etc.). In most cases, if the court does not have jurisdiction, it will not be able to make decisions regarding your case, other than to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. (In family law, there is a caveat to this: if you or your family is in danger, and has fled a state with jurisdiction for you or your children’s safety, the court may have emergency jurisdiction to provide a temporary order of protection.)
The first type of jurisdiction the court has to have to provide litigants any relief is personal jurisdiction. This means the court has the power to enter an order ordering either party to do something. For example, Washington has personal jurisdiction over a person living outside the state for purposes of entering a divorce decree (an order ending their marriage) and dividing property in association therewith, if s/he lived in a marital relationship in this state, may have conceived a child in this state, agrees to jurisdiction, or if the petitioning spouse continues to reside here or is a member of the armed forces stationed here. (If a person lives in the state on a permanent basis, Washington has jurisdiction to dissolve their marriage.)
The second type of jurisdiction the court must have is subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction over dissolutions and other proceedings is prescribed by statute. Parties may not agree to subject matter jurisdiction, instead the court must have subject jurisdiction based on the facts of the case.
Which county to file in is determined by rules of venue. Venue is related to jurisdiction in that it determines the county a petitioner may file in. In Washington, the petitioner may file in any county where s/he lives. If the petitioner chooses to file outside of her/his county of residence, the respondent will have the right to have the litigation moved to her/his county of residence.