Jurisdiction is the power of a court to make decisions regarding an issue or case. In family law, questions of jurisdiction can be very simple, extremely complex, or somewhere in between. For example, if the parties (to a family law action) have children and all involved parties and children live in Washington (and the children have been in the state for six months), Washington courts will have jurisdiction. Unfortunately, things are not always this simple. Family law actions are often precipitated by one parent and/or spouse moving out of the state. So where is the proper place to file if the parties live in two different states?
Jurisdiction over most family law cases is governed by RCW 4.28.185. This permits Washington courts jurisdiction over nonresident parties (i.e., parties living outside the state) if the nonresident party may have conceived a child in the state, lived as a married couple in the state, agrees to jurisdiction in Washington, or if the petitioning party still lives here or is a member of the armed services stationed here. Please note, even if the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the nonresident party, the court may still dissolve the marriage of the parties, but it will be unable to divide property and liabilities.
Jurisdiction in cases involving child custody is governed by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. This act requires that jurisdiction over initial custody determinations be made by the child’s home state. (The home state may decline jurisdiction if Washington is deemed a more appropriate forum.) The home state is the state where the child has lived for six months prior to the filing of the action. (If the child is under six months of age then the child’s home state is where the child has lived since birth.) The issue of jurisdiction can be further complicated if the child and both parents are no longer present in the state that would otherwise be deemed the child’s home state, but the child has not been in a new state long enough to create a new home state.