Using the UCCJEA to Settle Jurisdictional Disputes in Custody Cases

Issues of child custody, or allocation of parental responsibility in Illinois, are always emotional, and can even become fraught with disagreement and discord. Custody disputes can be even more complicated when a child’s parents live in different states.

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) is a law adopted by 49 states, including Illinois, as a mechanism for simplifying jurisdictional decisions related to child custody cases involving parents residing in different states.

When is the UCCJEA law relevant?

UCCJEA is relevant in child custody cases that are being considered when a child’s parents or guardians are living in different states. If there is a dispute over jurisdiction, the UCCJEA assists family court judges in determining the appropriate court to consider the case.

The term “jurisdiction” refers to the legal authority of a court to consider and decide the outcome of any one case. Custody cases can be initiated and considered at different times in a child’s life. They may happen during a couple’s separation or divorce, or later when one or both parents living situations change.

When a couple with children separates, it’s not unusual for one or both of the parents to move in order to support their new life circumstances. As a result, some parents find themselves involved in custody litigation while residing in different states.

The UCCJEA exists to assist family courts, parents, and children involved in these cases in creating the most equitable and caring outcome for the kids involved by deciding which jurisdiction should consider the case.

Why is the UCCJEA necessary?

Adopted by Illinois in 2004, the UCCJEA helps avoid or settle disputes over jurisdiction in child custody cases that span two states. A parent involved in custody litigation may prefer for his or her local court to have jurisdiction over the case, which can lead to a dispute over which legal jurisdiction is appropriate. Instead of allowing any one court to decide whether it should hold jurisdiction over a custody case, the UCCJEA provides a standard set of rules that determine the most appropriate jurisdiction.

It’s important to note that the UCCJEA does not set out rules or directives that decide the outcome of child custody cases. Rather it provides guidelines that direct family court judges to determine the appropriate jurisdiction for the case. Massachusetts is the only state in the U.S. that has not adopted the UCCJEA. It has been adopted by every other state – as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S Virgin Islands.

How does the UCCJEA work?

The UCCJEA comes into play when one parent or guardian involved in a child custody case files a petition with the court to have the case considered in their local jurisdiction, in a different state. Neither the originating judge nor the new judge can simply claim jurisdiction over the case. Rather they must consider UCCJEA directives to determine the most appropriate jurisdiction.

For example, a child’s mother files a custody case in her local jurisdiction. In response, the child’s father petitions to have the case instead considered by his local court, in a different state.

The two judges involved in the case will confer, often via teleconference or web conference, to settle the dispute about the appropriate jurisdiction, using the UCCJEA rules as their guide. The UCCJEA prioritizes home jurisdiction for the child or children involved in the custody case. This means that the best court to consider a child custody case is the one where the child resides, the UCCJEA says.If the child lives with their mother, the UCCJEA likely will guide the judges involved to leave the case within the mother’s local jurisdiction. However, if the child lives with their father, jurisdiction for the child custody case may be moved to his local court, according to the UCCJEA.

Once the jurisdictional decision is made, that court will maintain exclusive jurisdiction moving forward. This can only change if it is determined that the child or parents no longer have a connection with that state and that jurisdiction.

Other jurisdictional guidelines under the UCCJEA

Under the UCCJEA, judges must consider a number of factors to determine the appropriate jurisdiction for a child custody case. Home jurisdiction is paramount, but other details come into play as well during the decision-making.

Significant connection: Judges take seriously a child’s home location when considering jurisdiction. However, the UCCJEA also directs them to weigh a child’s other significant emotional and physical connections to a place that may help determine the best court for hearing the custody case about them.

Length of time in a state: While a child may reside in a certain state, the UCCJEA tells judges to look at the length of time the child has lived there. If they moved recently to the case, for example, their previous home’s local court may be the appropriate jurisdiction.

Evidence collection: During a child custody case, evidence may be presented, including testimony from the children in question. Following the UCCJEA, judges must consider which jurisdiction may have easier access to such evidence.

Court familiarity and ability: The UCCJEA also puts weight on a court’s pre-existing familiarity with a custody case to determine jurisdiction. It asks the conferring judges to consider each court’s ability to consider the case in an efficient manner.

How the UCCJEA protects victims of domestic violence

Foremost among the factors that judges must consider in multi-state child custody jurisdictional disputes is the possible existence of domestic violence as a factor. Regardless of the child’s most recent and perhaps lengthy home jurisdiction or their significant connection to the other state, the UCCJEA tells judges to consider whether domestic violence has occurred and is likely to continue in their previous state of residence. If that’s found to be the case, the judges may determine that granting jurisdiction to the new state of residence is in the best interest of the child involved.

Child custody cases can be some of the most emotionally difficult court cases to experience. While questions and disputes over jurisdiction can complicate matters, the UCCJEA provides a valuable tool for family court judges to determine a venue for the case that works best for the children involved.

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If you have family law or estate planning questions, our caring team would be honored to assist you. Please call Sterk Family Law Group, P.C. or contact us to speak with one of our caring legal team members or to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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