Home > family law general, law general > Wherever you are, There You Are: Geographic Jurisdiction Pt. 1

Wherever you are, There You Are: Geographic Jurisdiction Pt. 1

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that these little efforts at writing about the law are commonly inspired by hearing the same question from a number of different people in a short period of time.  This time, our question is this:  Can I bring an action in this court?  OK, so no one actually worded it quite like that, but that’s the actual question when stripped down to its barest form.  Geographic jurisdiction is just that–it’s what make this court appropriate in this place for this action, as opposed to one, say, in another state.

(NOTE:  A study of the rules of civil procedure will show a couple of different types of jurisdiction.  We’re not going to go into those right now–it’s too complex and really not relevant to this particular discussion.  Just know that there are different types, and the type we’re discussing right now deals with the physical location of the people involved–it’s called personal jurisdiction.)

All the pretty jurisdictions 🙂

A jurisdiction is a geographical region that a court has authority over.  In Utah, we have district courts that are located in counties.  Cache county, for example, is a section of the First District Court in the state of Utah.  Box Elder county is another section of the First District.  You can find out what district you live in by going to the state courts website judicial district locator map page (found here: http://www.utcourts.gov/directory/directorymap.asp ).

The short answer to this question, “Can I bring an action in this court?” depends on the people involved and where they actually live or do business.  We need to break it down into additional questions to come up with our answer:

1)  Where did the “acts complained of” occur?  This is a rather odd way of asking if the person bringing the case was hurt RIGHT HERE, within this court’s area of authority.  If you were suing a body shop for destroying your car’s paint job, you have to sue them in the county/district court jurisdiction where the body shop did the paint-job-destroying.  That may or may not be where you live, but that’s the court that has the authority to make a decision in that case.

2)  Are you and/or your spouse a bona fide resident of the court’s area of authority?

You have to LIVE in the state, not just be physically present there.

If one were married and living in Salt Lake county, and their spouse were as well, it would be inappropriate to file for divorce in Utah county, or any other county that wasn’t Salt Lake.  In U.C.A. § 30-3-1(2) it states that either the Petitioner OR Respondent must be an “actual bona fide resident” of the state and county where the action is brought for 3 months before the commencement of the action.  A bona fide resident is one who is actually living in the county–not visiting, and planning on leaving again, but actually residing, and plans on remaining a resident.  Or has been a resident with the intention of remaining there on more than a temporary basis.  AND that person has to have been there (living, working, making their home) for 3 months prior to filing the domestic action with the court.  You can’t just hop down from Idaho to visit your mom in Box Elder county, file for divorce there, and think you’ll just hang out until the divorce is final.  You are not a bona fide resident of Box Elder county.  The court doesn’t have jurisdiction to enter a divorce in your case.

3)  Have your children/the children at issue in the custody part of the action been residing in the county/state for 6 months prior to commencing the action?  This actually jumps into what started out as federal statute and has been adopted by the states.  It’s currently known as the UCCJEA, or Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.  Utah’s version is located at U.C.A. Title 78B Chapter 13.  The jurisdictional parts are located at U.C.A. § 78B-13-201 and 202.  The short version is that a child must be present in a state for 6 months prior to a parent filing an action that affects that child’s physical custody for that state to have “home state” jurisdiction over that child.  Meaning, if you live in California with your kids, and then leave your spouse and move to Utah, you can’t file anything with the Utah court to determine custody until the kids have been in Utah for 6 months.  Until that 6 month period has elapsed, California is the children’s home state for the purpose of determining child custody.  “But wait–what if you have a baby who is under 6 months old?  Does that mean that NO state has home state jurisdiction?”  (Ah, you thought you’d found a loophole!)  No, the lawmakers who drafted this thing did consider that.  U.C.A. § 78B-13-102(7) tells us that for children less than 6 months old, the home state is the state the child has lived in since their birth with any of the parties mentioned in the action.

There are other considerations when the issue is child custody, but I’ll leave the UCCJEA discussion of that for another time…

4)  If this is a child custody case, does another court have jurisdiction over the children?  I mentioned briefly the 6 month rule for children having to have been in the state/county.  Additionally, if a different jurisdiction (say, California from our example above) has already entered some sort of court ruling regarding these kids and their custody, that court retains jurisdiction until it deliberately and on-purpose gives it up.  So, if you got divorced in Cali, and your child custody order came out of that Cali divorce, you cannot now simply move to Utah and modify your child custody order without Cali specifically allowing for it.  The Utah court lacks jurisdiction to make a change, because California has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction.  You can find the statute, U.C.A. § 78B-13-203, that spells out all the rules for moving jurisdiction from one locale to another here.

I’m calling this particular blog post “Part 1” because there is more to this than just this little bit.  I’ll save the rest of it for another time.  But this is a good starting point.  And something to think about when you’re feeling pinched by the law under the UCCJEA:  This law was enacted to prevent parents from effectively kidnapping their children, hopping across state lines to a state that seemed to like their version of their case better, and a getting a court to enter a custody order without the other parent having so much as a chance to muster evidence and haul it to that completely inconvenient courthouse.  The policy is good, and it does just what it was supposed to do in 99% of the cases.  The other 1%….that can be a disaster for a parent and children, but those are some pretty extreme cases.  Another topic for another post.

Just chew on this part of it for now.

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