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A Better Partnership
June 21, 2015

COA to lower courts: Consider proper statutory factors before ruling on child-custody jurisdiction

In Cheesman v. Williams, No. 320446, the Court of Appeals clarified the analysis that a trial court must undertake to determine the existence and exercise of jurisdiction in a child-custody dispute. Under MCL 722.1201(1), a Michigan court has jurisdiction over a child-custody dispute under certain circumstances, and only under those circumstances. In order to decline to exercise jurisdiction under MCL 722.1207 because Michigan is an “inconvenient forum,” the trial court must first fully consider whether the circumstances of MCL 722.1201(1) apply, and then must consider the eight factors under MCL 722.1207. Because the trial court failed to consider all of the relevant statutory provisions and because the record was devoid of evidence regarding certain issues, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for the trial court to properly apply the statutes and to take additional evidence.
The parties are the parents of KC, who “lived jointly” between both parents until defendant’s incarceration in 2009. KC lived with plaintiff in Detroit until 2011, after defendant’s release. From 2011 until June 2013, KC lived with defendant, moving several times between Ohio and Georgia. Plaintiff filed a complaint on August 19, 2013 seeking custody of KC.
The trial court dismissed the complaint, concluding that Michigan did not have jurisdiction over the dispute because Michigan was not KC’s “home state” (defined by MCL 722.1102(g) as “the state in which a child lived with a parent . . . for at least 6 consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child-custody proceeding”). The trial court also ruled that, even if it had jurisdiction, that it would decline to exercise that jurisdiction because Michigan was an “inconvenient forum” for defendant.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal because the trial court failed to consider the possible grounds for jurisdiction under MCL 722.1201(1) other than whether Michigan was KC’s “home state.” In particular, subsection (b) provides that a Michigan court has jurisdiction if no other state is the child’s “home state” and the Michigan court finds that the child and at least one parent have a “significant connection” with Michigan and that “substantial evidence” is available in Michigan concerning the child’s care and relationships. KC’s moves between Ohio and Georgia likely precluded either state from being KC’s “home state,” thus fulfilling the first part of subsection (b), but the trial court failed to consider or take evidence regarding whether there was a “significant connection” to or “substantial evidence” in Michigan. Under subsection (d), moreover, a Michigan court has jurisdiction where no court of another state would have jurisdiction under subsections (a), (b), or (c). Thus, the trial court should have also considered whether the “significant connection” and “substantial evidence” factors applied to Ohio or Georgia before determining that it did not have jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals therefore remanded the case so that the trial court could consider these factors and take additional evidence on them.
The Court of Appeals also took issue with the trial court’s refusal to exercise jurisdiction on grounds that Michigan was an “inconvenient forum.” A court may only decline to exercise jurisdiction for inconvenience of forum if the court has jurisdiction in the first place; the trial court here ruled it did not. Under MCL 722.1207, moreover, a court must allow parties to submit information and must consider eight factors before concluding that it is an inconvenient forum, and after doing so it must stay the proceedings until a proceeding is commenced in another designated state. The trial court here did none of those things, instead relying only on conclusory assertions in the parties’ briefs and an email purportedly containing a “diary” entry of KC’s to conclude that a Michigan court would be inconvenient for defendant. The Court of Appeals, in its remand, mandated that the trial court take additional evidence and consider each of the eight factors under MCL 722.1207.

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