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International child custody dispute goes to the Supreme Court

Florida military personnel, because of international deployments, may be more likely than civilians to have children with partners who are nationals of other countries. Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a child relocation and custody case that could significantly impact many deployed individuals who do not live in the same countries as their children or partners with whom they share children.

The Court will address the issue of whether a U.S. court has jurisdiction over a child who is living outside the country with a parent who is not a U.S. national.

The case involves a U.S. Army sergeant who had filed for divorce from his wife, a Scottish national. The couple had been living apart since 2007 because of the sergeant's military assignment, with the child and her mother living in Scotland. In 2010, the sergeant's spouse came to the United States with the couple's daughter to try and rebuild the marriage, but the couple decided to split. A state judge gave the father custody of the girl.

When the mother returned to her country of origin, she successfully brought an action in federal court seeking the return of the couple's daughter to Scotland. The judge ruled that Scotland was the girl's "habitual residence" according to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, and ordered the girl be returned to the mother in Scotland.

The father appealed the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was dismissed. The court ruled that because the girl was in Scotland, the child custody issue was moot.

Counsel for the father in this case maintains that the 11th Circuit decision conflicts with other federal appellate courts and that its effect is to refuse custody rights to parents whose children have effectively been abducted and taken to another country.

The mother's attorney argues that the Hague Convention does not necessarily clarify which country should decide custody questions that span two different countries.

The outcome of this case will be highly relevant to child custody determinations in military divorces, because it will determine whether U.S. courts can issue binding rulings regarding children who leave the country.

Observers anticipate a decision from the Supreme Court sometime before June of next year.

Source: Reuters, "Supreme Court to hear international child custody dispute," Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes, Aug. 13, 2012

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