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Welch-Doden v. Roberts

    Brief Fact Summary
    Mother (Plaintiff) moved to Arizona and four months later filed for divorce and custody, after which Father (Defendant) filed for divorce and custody in Oklahoma.  The Arizona trial court determined that Oklahoma has jurisdiction.  Oklahoma then awarded custody to father (Defendant) in Oklahoma.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law

    1. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) provides that “home state†jurisdiction is the last state the child resided in for six months in a row at any time within six months of the filing for custody.
    2. The best interests of the child are not properly in jurisdictional analysis.
    3. First-in-time filing in a non-home state does not defeat jurisdiction of the home state.

    Facts
    A child was born in Oklahoma in April 1999 to Melissa Welch-Doden (Plaintiff) and Terry Welch-Doden (Defendant).  The family moved often.  The child resided in Oklahoma seven and a half months until December 1999.  The child then resided in Arizona for three months from December 1999 through March 2000.  From March 2000 through September 2000 the child resided again in Oklahoma for six months.  The mother then moved back to Arizona with the child for four months.  At the end of that period, on January 25, 2001, Mrs. Welch-Doden (Plaintiff) filed a petition for dissolution and child custody in Arizona.  Mr. Welch-Doden filed for divorce and custody in Oklahoma soon afterwards.  After consulting with the Oklahoma court, the Arizona court dismissed the action on grounds that Oklahoma was the child’s home state under the UCCJEA.  Plaintiff filed petition for special action.

    Issue

    1. Does the UCCJEA provide that “home state†jurisdiction is the last state the child resided in for six months in a row at any time within six months of the filing for custody?
    2. Are the best interests of the child properly considered in jurisdictional analysis?
    3. Does first-in-time filing in a non-home state defeat jurisdiction of the home state?

    Held
    (Barker, J.)

    1. Yes.  The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) provides that “home state†jurisdiction is the last state the child resided in for six months in a row at any time within six months of the filing for custody.  The main purpose of the UCCJEA is to establish the certainty of home state jurisdiction by avoiding jurisdictional competition and conflict that comes from court inquiry into substantive review of subjective factors, such as “best interests,†for purposes of determining initial jurisdiction.  So that the UCCJEA may be interpreted in a way that promotes the purposes the drafters intended, the definition of home state jurisdiction must be expanded to consist of the state where the child resided for six months prior to the beginning of the child custody proceeding, not necessarily immediately prior to the beginning of the proceeding.
    2. No.  The best interests of the child are not properly in jurisdictional analysis.  The drafters of the UCCJEA specifically sought to eliminate jurisdictional disputes that resulted when “best interests†was used to determine initial jurisdiction, because different jurisdictions could arrive at different conclusions regarding “best interests,†and therefore arrive at different results regarding jurisdiction.
    3. No.  First-in-time filing in a non-home state does not defeat jurisdiction of the home state.  First-in-time filing must be in a state having jurisdiction substantially in conformity with the law, and since Oklahoma had home state jurisdiction, Arizona did not have jurisdiction substantially in conformity.  Affirmed.

    Discussion
    This case is often cited by other jurisdictions dealing with the UCCJEA.  The fact that at all times during every move, the child was with his mother, was specifically dismissed by the court as having no bearing on the jurisdictional issue, which, when considered outside the narrow issue of jurisdiction and in light of the larger custody issue, might go against the best interests of the child under current family law rules.


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