Interstate and International Litigation

Interstate and international family law disputes are becoming increasingly common.  As people have increasing ties to multiple states or countries, they inevitably encounter greater complexity when getting a divorce. S.L. Pitts – a top family law firm in Seattle, Washington – has a team of attorneys specializing in disputes falling under interstate and international family law.

Family law issues in divorce – such as child custody, spousal support, property division, and prenuptial agreements – become more complicated when interstate and international family law comes into play.

For instance, when a spouse moves from one state to another and initiates divorce proceedings, the question arises as to the proper state in which the divorce should proceed. Or a father may stop paying child support after moving to a new state, in which case the question arises as to the proper procedure for enforcement of child support.

In some cases, a couple maintains residences in two U.S. states or countries, and spends significant time in both; in that case, the first spouse to file may be able to dictate the state in which the divorce will take place.

Though it is rare, sometimes a parent kidnaps a child and flees to a foreign country, in which case the attorney will need to quickly ascertain whether and how the child can be secured and returned to their home country.

These are only a few of the many issues that could arise in the area of interstate and international family law disputes. 

Initial Jurisdiction in Interstate and International Family Law Disputes

Often, one of the first questions people facing a family law dispute grapple with is the state or country within which to bring their legal claim. Lawyers refer to this issue as jurisdiction. And jurisdictional questions in family law are complex because any given family law case may contain multiple issues, each with its own jurisdictional analysis.

Distinct Legal Issues in an Interstate and International Divorce

A single divorce may contain the following distinct legal issues:

  1. changing the marital status to unmarried;
  2. dividing property between the spouses;
  3. custody order for the children;
  4. child support;
  5. alimony/spousal support;
  6. restraining orders in cases of domestic violence.

It is quite possible for one or more states to have jurisdiction over some, but not all, of these issues.

The stakes in selecting jurisdiction can be significant. For instance, take a couple in their mid-40s who have been married for 16 years and assume that they could file for divorce in either Washington or California. Assume the husband makes $500,000 net per year and the wife makes $100,000 net per year. There are numerous other factors that would affect how a court in either Washington or California would evaluate alimony for this hypothetical couple. That said, these facts do offer a starting point for considering alimony – and that starting point is vastly different between the two states.

If the couple gets divorced in Washington, the wife can expect alimony for about four or five years, starting at $75,000 for the first year and declining by about $15,000 each year. That comes to a gross alimony award of about $250,000.

If the same couple gets divorced in California, the wife can expect alimony until her husband retires (about 20 years in this hypothetical). And in California, the guideline alimony formula would suggest an alimony award of about $150,000 per year. That comes to a gross alimony award of about $3 million.

So where the divorce is decided can matter. A lot. If you or your spouse have connections to multiple jurisdictions – or if you’re about to move – and are contemplating divorce, then you should consult with experienced interstate and international litigation attorneys in both jurisdictions to determine which state is the appropriate jurisdiction. And you should understand how your substantive legal rights could be eroded or enhanced by where the case is heard.

Relocation and Enforcement of Orders in Interstate and International Divorce / Separation Cases

It is quite common for former partners to relocate after a separation or divorce. In that event, it may become necessary to enforce an order in the state to which the relocating partner has moved.  It may also be possible for the relocating party to seek an adjustment of an existing court order under the new state’s laws – laws that may be more favorable to the moving party. The law in this area is complex and anybody who is moving or whose former partner is moving is well advised to speak with an experienced family law attorney about issues related to modification and/or enforcement arising from the planned relocation.  

Protection of Parental Rights in an Interstate and International Child Custody Case

There are both state and international laws designed to prevent a parent from abducting a child and travelling to another state or country. Within the United States, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) and the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) generally control which state may exercise jurisdiction over child custody disputes (Massachusetts is the only state not to adopt the UCCJEA). In general terms, these laws grant child custody determinations to the child’s “home state,” which is defined as where the child lived for the six months prior to litigation. The only real exception to this rule is for a parent fleeing domestic violence to another state – in which case the laws will allow the new state to exercise jurisdiction over custody matters.

In addition, what is commonly referred to as the Hague Convention (more specifically, it was ratified as The International Child Abduction Remedies Act), attempts to prevent a parent from wrongfully taking a child to another country. Similar to the UCCJEA, the Hague Convention prohibits a child’s wrongful removal from their “habitual residence.” However, the Hague Convention only applies to those countries who have adopted it (and even then, compliance isn’t stellar) and it only applies to children under 16 years old.

Whether proceeding under state or international law, when seeking to have a child returned that was wrongfully taken, it is imperative to act quickly. These laws are designed to provide for the almost immediate return of the child, but they require the wronged parent to initiate legal proceedings. When seeking to secure the return of an abducted child, having the help of an experienced attorney is invaluable.