Child Custody Jurisdiction under MoUCCJA: The Law and Recent Rulings from the Court of Appeals

In Missouri, there is a specific law that details under what circumstances Missouri Courts have jurisdiction to make custody and visitation orders, called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, or MoUCCJA. Section 452.150.1 sets out the four alternative jurisdictional bases that exist under the UCCJA. If a court is otherwise competent to decide a child custody matter, the statute grants the court subject matter jurisdiction to do so if:

(1) this state is:

(a) The “home state” of the child at the time of the commencement of the proceeding (defined as the state where a child has lived for 6 consecutive months); or

(b) had been the child’s home state within the six months before commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from this state for any reason, and a parent or person acting as parent continues to live in this state; or

(These two 6 month provisions are different and must be read together)

(2) It is in the best interests of the child that a court of this state assume jurisdiction because:

(a) The child and his parents, or the child and at least one litigant, have a significant connection with this state and

(b) There is available in this state substantial evidence concerning the child’s present or future care, protection, training, and personal relationships; or

(3) The child is physically present in this state and:

(a) Has been abandoned; or

(b) It is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because he has been subjected to or threatened with mistreatment or abuse, or is otherwise being neglected; or

(4) It appears that no other state would have jurisdiction under prerequisites 1, 2, or 3, or another state has declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that this state is the more appropriate forum to determine the custody of the child, and it is in the best interest of the child that this court assume jurisdiction.

“The primary purpose of the UCCJA is to ensure that custody determinations are made in accordance with, and in the state best suited to provide for, the welfare and best interest of the child. To that end, the UCCJA is purposely designed “to ensure that a child’s custody determination is made in the state with which the child and his family are most closely connected and where the most significant evidence concerning the child’s custody is available. The comments to the UCCJA make it clear that the bases of jurisdiction in paragraphs (1) – (4) of §452.450.1 are set out in descending preferential order and that the first two bases for jurisdiction, home state and significant connection with family, establish the two major bases for jurisdiction.

A trial court’s jurisdiction under the UCCJA to hear custody matters must be based upon circumstances existing at the time the Court’s jurisdiction is invoked. Missouri courts have repeatedly observed that "it is implicit in the scheme of the UCCJA that the trial court should make an initial determination of jurisdiction by express findings of fact before proceeding to the substantive issue of custody

Recent rulings in the last few weeks

In Roman Gosserand, Respondent, v. Tiffani Gosserand, Appellant the court restated that the jurisdictional bases are to be analyzed in decending order, which means that home state jurisdiction is the strongest, with significant contacts being second. In this case there was a “home state” as defined in the statute, and the Father of the child argued that the state with the most “significant contacts” should be the appropriate state. The Gosserand court disagreed and held that since there was a “home state”, that was the strongest jurisdictional base and there was insufficient evidence to overcome it, and the “home state” was the appropriate jurisdiction.

In Theresa Schoenecke, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Brent Schoenecke, Defendant-Respondent, the Court dealt with the issue of the requirement that the Court must make express findings of fact as to jurisdiction before proceeding to determine the substantive issue of custody. In Schoenekcke, the trial court ruled that there was no child custody jurisdiction without any explanation as to how the court came to that decision. This ruling was based on in chambers and off the record arguments of the attorneys. There was no presentation of evidence to support the ruling of the court. Because of this the Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the trial court to make express findings as to jurisdiction.