How the UCCJEA Affects Child Custody Cases in North Carolina

Concept for divorce settlement with scales of justice showing child and home concept

Interstate child custody issues are not uncommon among parents in North Carolina. One parent might live in the state and the other may reside elsewhere. However, in the event of a dispute, two states cannot have jurisdiction over a child custody matter at the same time. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) encourages cooperation between states and helps ensure consistency when it comes to state child custody laws.

What is the UCCJEA?

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act is a uniform state law that was drafted in 1997 and adopted by North Carolina. It is a complex statute that dictates which state should decide a custody case in interstate disputes — but it doesn’t determine the outcome of a custody matter. Rather, North Carolina courts look to the UCCJEA to decide whether the state is the appropriate jurisdiction to hear an initial custody matter or a modification request.

When Does a North Carolina Court Have Jurisdiction Under the UCCJEA?

The governing principle that judges must apply in child custody cases is “the best interests of the child.” The UCCJEA aligns with this standard by preventing forum shopping — and ordering that custody matters be litigated where the child and family maintain their ties. By giving preference to a child’s home state, the UCCJEA discourages parents from traveling to different jurisdictions to find a venue that they might think is more favorable.

The UCCJEA specifies four bases for jurisdiction in child custody matters, including the following:

  • Home state jurisdiction — North Carolina must have been the home state of the child for at least six months prior to the commencement of the proceedings.
  • Significant connection jurisdiction — The child and at least one of the parents must have a significant connection with North Carolina for jurisdiction to be appropriate.
  • More appropriate forum — This may be used as the grounds for jurisdiction in cases where both home state and significant connection jurisdiction are not applicable because forum is more appropriate in another state.
  • No other state jurisdiction — North Carolina can hear a custody matter if all other courts that would have had jurisdiction decline to exercise it on the grounds that the state is the more appropriate forum.

A court can decline to exercise jurisdiction over a custody matter if it finds that the state is an “inconvenient forum.” A judge will evaluate several factors in considering whether a forum is not convenient, including whether there were instances of domestic violence and one state could better protect the child. A court must also consider the length of time the child lived outside the state, the distance between the state declining jurisdiction and the state assuming it, any agreement between the parties, and each party’s financial circumstances. In addition, a judge is required to consider the nature and location of evidence in the matter, the ability of each court to quickly decide the issues, and each court’s familiarity with the facts of the case.

Enforcement and Modification of Out-of-State Custody Orders Under the UCCJEA

Under the UCCJEA, courts have a duty to enforce child custody determinations of other jurisdictions. Although it isn’t required by statute, a parent who moves to North Carolina may choose to register a child custody order from another state. While registration is a separate and optional procedure from requesting enforcement or modification of an order, it is a way to help ensure a North Carolina court has jurisdiction over such proceedings.

If a parent does not register a foreign child custody order in North Carolina, courts in the state can still enforce it if modification jurisdiction exists. But it is essential to understand that registration itself does not give a court in the state the jurisdiction to modify the order of another state. A court in North Carolina can only do so if it would have had the jurisdiction to determine the initial custody matter.

Temporary Emergency Jurisdiction and the UCCJEA

The UCCJEA commonly comes into play regarding emergency jurisdiction matters. Emergency jurisdiction can arise in situations where a child has been abandoned, needs protection from abuse, was subject to threats of harm, or faces extraordinary circumstances. The UCCJEA also allows a court to exercise emergency jurisdiction in cases involving domestic violence between parents. In cases involving safety concerns, another jurisdiction may modify an out-of-state custody order.

A parent who has good cause to believe their child’s welfare is in danger with the out-of-state parent can file an application for a temporary emergency order. If granted, the temporary order is limited in scope and duration — it is only meant to be in place pending the outcome of a hearing in the state where the initial custody order was entered. Courts in different jurisdictions are required to communicate with each other when emergency jurisdiction is exercised to resolve the issue and determine how long the temporary order will last. A temporary order can turn into a permanent one under certain circumstances.

Contact an Experienced North Carolina Child Custody Attorney

Navigating an interstate child custody dispute can be complex and it’s crucial to have an attorney by your side who understands the nuances of the UCCJEA and North Carolina child custody law. With offices located in Moyock and Elizabeth City, The Twiford Law Firm provides adept counsel for child custody disputes and a wide variety of family law matters throughout Northeastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks. Contact us today to schedule a consultation to learn how we can help.