Jurisdiction Contested in International Child-Custody Dispute in Winchester, Tennessee Divorce: Hagans v. Hagans

FactsIn this five-year marriage, the parents of one child moved around. From 2013-2015, they lived in Sewanee, Tennessee so Father could complete his college education at The University of the South.

They moved to Scotland in mid-2015 so Father could attend graduate school at the University of St. Andrews.

They separated in February 2016 and maintained separate residences in Scotland. On April 14, 2016, Mother initiated legal proceedings regarding child custody in a court in Scotland.

Six days later, Father filed for divorce in Franklin County, Tennessee.

The Tennessee trial court denied Mother’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, finding that Father was domiciled in Tennessee.

The Tennessee court also held that Tennessee was the child’s “home state” under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).

Father was granted a divorce by default, and the Tennessee court approved his parenting plan.

scottish tennessee child custodyMother appealed.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the trial court initially held that Tennessee was the appropriate venue for child-custody determinations. The Scottish appellate court reversed that ruling and held that Scotland had jurisdiction over the parties’ child. The Scottish trial court then entered an order preventing Father from removing the child from Mother’s custody.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

First, the Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that it had jurisdiction over the divorce because the proof showed the parties’ relocation to Scotland was temporary and that they intended to return to Tennessee. It was proper for the Tennessee court to grant a divorce.

The child-custody ruling is a different matter.

Under the UCCJEA, Tennessee courts treat a foreign country as if it were a state of the United States.

Jurisdiction under the UCCJEA attaches when the first pleading is filed in a child-custody proceeding.

In the Scotland child-custody proceeding, which was filed before the divorce in Tennessee, the Scottish court entered an order preventing Father from removing the child from Mother’s custody. There is a custody determination Tennessee that conflicts with the order of the Scottish court.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-221(a) provides that unless a child is present in Tennessee or there is an emergency, Tennessee courts may not exercise jurisdiction over child-custody disputes if, when the Tennessee proceeding begins, another proceeding has begun in a court of another state having jurisdiction.

Applying the statute to the facts, the Court held the Scottish court has exclusive jurisdiction over the parties’ child:

[T]wo custody proceedings were being litigated at the same time, contrary to the purpose and construction of the UCCJEA . . . . Application of the UCCJEA leads us to conclude that the Tennessee court did not have jurisdiction over the child custody proceedings initiated by Father, as a proceeding concerning the custody of the child had been commenced in the courts of Scotland. Until such time as the court in Scotland cedes jurisdiction, it has exclusive jurisdiction of the custody matters between the parties; accordingly, we vacate the parenting plan and child-support obligations incorporated into the final decree [of divorce].

Although the parties are divorced under Tennessee law, the child-custody issues will be determined by the Scottish court.

Hagans v. Hagans (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, April 5, 2018).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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