Jurisdiction is Lost When Parties Relocate

March 29, 2012
By The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC on March 29, 2012 4:27 PM |

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has defined for Tennessee divorce attorneys when a trial court has jurisdiction to modify child support under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) when neither the parents nor the children still reside in Tennessee.

In Earls v. Mendoza, No. W2010-01878-COA-R3-CV, the parties filed for divorce in Jackson, TN. They had two children together. During the divorce proceedings, the father accepted a promotion in Buffalo, NY. He, the mother, and the two children all moved there. Once the divorce was finalized in Jackson, the mother accepted a job offer in Denver, CO. The mother subsequently filed a motion with the Jackson trial court to relocate with the children to Denver. She also filed contempt against the father for not paying child support. The trial court granted the mother's motion to relocate with the children to Denver and also found the father to be in contempt. The trial court then modified the father's child support obligation.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's decision, finding that the trial court lacked jurisdiction due to none of the parties living in Tennessee at the time the motions were made. While this issue was not raised by either party, Tennessee appellate courts are able to decide jurisdictional issues on their own under Tenn. R. App. P. 13(b).

Regarding whether the court had jurisdiction to modify the father's child support obligation, the court looked to UIFSA (T.C.A. § 36-5-2201 et seq.). This Act governs interstate jurisdiction questions involving child support. Under T.C.A. § 36-5-2101, in order for a Tennessee trial court to have jurisdiction, the parties and the children have to live in Tennessee for at least six consecutive months immediately preceding the time of filing a petition. A trial court can also only have continuing, exclusive jurisdiction under certain situations. According to T.C.A. § 36-5-2205, a Tennessee Court has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over a child support order: "(1)As long as this state remains the residence of the obligor, the individual obligee, or the child for whose benefit the support order is issued; or (2) Until all of the parties who are individuals have filed written consents with the tribunal of this state for a tribunal of another state to modify the order and assume continuing, exclusive jurisdiction." Looking to courts of other states as well as previous appellate cases in Tennessee, the court noted that "virtually all have concluded that, once the parents and their minor children have left the issuing state, that state no longer has jurisdiction to modify its order."

Even though the mother argued that the parties consented to have the Tennessee trial court hear their case, the Appellate Court disagreed. No indication existed in the record showing that the parties "consent[ed] in a record or open court" to the Tennessee trial court below exercising jurisdiction to modify its order. In essence, silent acquiescence is not enough to show consent.