Posted On: February 23, 2010

Where to file divorce when parties live in different states

It is often confusing for spouses who live in different states to figure out the appropriate state in which to bring their divorce and child custody action. Jurisdiction in a child custody case in which the parents reside in different states is governed by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”). The Georgia appellate courts often hear cases regarding this issue and the Court of Appeals of Georgia recently affirmed a trial court’s ruling that jurisdiction was proper in Georgia. In Cohen v. Cohen, the parties were married and had a child in Georgia, but the wife subsequently moved to West Virginia. Cohen v. Cohen, 300 Ga. App. 7 (2009). About a year after moving to West Virginia, the wife filed for divorce and custody there, and the husband filed in Georgia a month later. Id. The West Virginia trial court granted the husband’s motion to dismiss that action and the wife then filed a motion to dismiss the Georgia action for lack of jurisdiction. Id. Generally, “[A] court of this state has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if:

(1) This state is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding, or was the home state of the child within six months before the commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from this state but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in this state;
(2) A court of another state does not have jurisdiction under paragraph (1) of this subsection, or a court of the home state of the child has declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that this state is the more appropriate forum under Code Section 19-9-67 or 19-9-68 and:
(A) The child and the child's parents, or the child and at least one parent or a person acting as a parent, have a significant connection with this state other than mere physical presence; and
(B) Substantial evidence is available in this state concerning the child's care, protection, training, and personal relationships;
(3) All courts having jurisdiction under paragraph (1) or (2) of this subsection have declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that a court of this state is the more appropriate forum to determine the custody of the child under Code Section 19-9-67 or 19-9-68; or
(4) No court of any other state would have jurisdiction under the criteria specified in paragraph (1), (2), or (3) of this subsection.” O.C.G.A. §19-9-61(a).

The Court of Appeals affirmed Georgia’s jurisdiction under subsection OCGA 19-9-61(a)(3), stating that “[t]he trial court made specific reference to the West Virginia court's order, which explicitly found that Heather still had a Georgia driver's license, was a registered voter in Georgia, had utility bills in her name coming to her Georgia address, and had student loan and credit card bills in her name coming to her Georgia address.” Cohen at 9. Those facts, combined with the fact that the dismissal in West Virginia was not appealed, made jurisdiction proper in Georgia.

Posted On: February 16, 2010

Fulton County jurisdiction ruling vacated in custody case

A decision of a Fulton County judge regarding jurisdiction in a custody modification case was recently overturned in Murillo v. Murillo, 360 Ga. App. 61 (2009). A husband and wife were divorced in Fulton County in 1997 and the wife was granted custody of the parties’ child. Id. at 62. In 2002, the wife moved with the child to North Carolina. In 2008, pursuant to the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”), the husband filed a Petition to Modify Custody in Fulton County Superior Court. Id. The trial court then granted the wife’s motion asking the court to decline jurisdiction as North Carolina was the more convenient forum for the proceeding. Id.

Generally, since Fulton County was the court that entered the original custody ruling, Fulton County had “exclusive, continuing jurisdiction” over the modification action unless the court determines that it determines that it is an inconvenient forum under the circumstances and that a court of another state is a more appropriate forum. OCGA §19-9-67. To make that determination, OCGA §19-9-67(b) requires the court to consider all of the following factors:

(1) Whether family violence has occurred and is likely to continue in the future and which state could best protect the parties and the child;
(2) The length of time the child has resided outside this state;
(3) The distance between the court in this state and the court in the state that would assume jurisdiction;
(4) The relative financial circumstances of the parties;
(5) Any agreement of the parties as to which state should assume jurisdiction;
(6) The nature and location of the evidence required to resolve the pending litigation, including testimony of the child;
(7) The ability of the court of each state to decide the issue expeditiously and the procedures necessary to present the evidence; and
(8) The familiarity of the court of each state with the facts and issues in the pending litigation.

In vacating the decision of the Fulton County court, the Court of Appeals did not say that the end result was incorrect per se, but rather emphasized that the court did not consider and reference ALL of the required factors in its written Order in making its decision that it was no longer a convenient forum. Id. at 64. Thus, the Court of Appeals directed the trial courts to always consider ALL of the factors in making a jurisdiction decision.

Posted On: February 9, 2010

Order incarcerating wife for contempt reversed

The Court of Appeals recently emphasized the due process required before incarcerating a person for contempt of a divorce decree. In Bauman v. Humphries, according to the parties’ divorce decree, the wife was required to enroll the minor children in private school and pay all associated expenses. Bauman v. Humphries, 300 Ga. App. 263 (2009). Following a hearing, the trial court found the wife in willful contempt of this provision of the divorce decree, but gave her the opportunity to purge herself of the contempt by enrolling the children at the specified school by a specified date. Id. If the wife failed to purge herself, she was to be incarcerated until she complied. Id. at 264. Shortly thereafter, the husband’s attorney sent a letter to the court alleging that the wife failed to comply by the specified date and included a proposed order for incarceration, which the trial court signed. Id.

Upon appeal by the wife, the Court of Appeals reversed, relying on well-settled Supreme Court of Georgia rulings and stating that "in Georgia, a trial court cannot order incarceration pursuant to a self-effectuating order, regarding future acts, without benefit of a hearing." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Smith v. Smith, 280 Ga. 620, 621 (632 SE2d 83) (2006). The Court went on to state that even when a hearing has been held adjudging a person in contempt, the trial court cannot sign an order of incarceration based upon a letter from an interested individual. Bauman at 264. The Court of Appeals quoted the Supreme Court of Georgia, which held that “the court may only act, at a minimum, on an ‘affidavit . . . from a neutral and disinterested court official or other officer based upon objective information.’” Hall v. Doyle-Hall, 284 Ga. 325, 326 (667 SE2d 81) (2008).

Posted On: February 2, 2010

Alimony award overturned due to husband’s inability to pay

The Georgia Supreme Court recently affirmed the Court of Appeals’ reversal of an alimony award as contrary to the evidence presented at trial. Coker v. Coker, 286 Ga. 20 (2009). The parties were married for approximately 24 years and had no children together. The only marital asset was a house. In addition, the husband had a separate asset, an interest in an LLC, which was worth approximately $100,000, but could not be converted to cash. Id. at 20, 21. The wife’s income was $45,000 and the husband’s income at the time of trial was $500/week, though the trial court determined his annual income to be $30,000. Id. Despite the husband’s meager income and assets, the trial court awarded the wife lump sum alimony in the amount of $36,500, which was to be paid within 3 months of the final decree of divorce. Id.

Generally, alimony is to be awarded based upon the needs of the party to whom it is awarded and the ability of the other party to pay. OCGA § 19-6-1 (c). In determining whether alimony should be awarded, and the amount thereof, the court looks at many factors, including the separate assets of each party and their earning capacities. OCGA § 19-6-1 (a). The Supreme Court acknowledged that the wife’s anticipated expenses justified her need for alimony, but stated that “the record is completely devoid of any evidence of Husband's ability to pay the trial court's lump sum alimony award.” Id. at 22. Without that evidence, the award must be reversed.