Justices: Indiana OK to dismiss jurisdiction

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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In an Indiana custody case that started before a married couple's only child was born, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that either Indiana or the state where the child was born could have jurisdiction over proceedings. The Indiana trial court dismissed proceedings in favor of Washington State, where the child was born, as a more convenient forum, clearing the way for that state to take over jurisdiction.

The issue in Anthony N. Stewart v. Signe L. (Stewart) Vulliet, No. 12S02-0708-CV-331, is whether Indiana could dismiss the child custody proceedings between Anthony Stewart and Signe Vulliet and allow Washington to take over the proceedings.

Stewart and Vulliet were married and lived in Washington before moving to Indiana. While Vulliet was pregnant and still living in Indiana, she filed for divorce and moved back to Washington after living in Indiana for only six months. Their daughter, A.S., was born in Washington in 2004 and for nearly two years, the Indiana trial court issued several orders pertaining to the child's custody.

In April 2006, Vulliet asked the Indiana court to dismiss custody and visitation issues, arguing Indiana was an inconvenient forum. The court granted the motion, even though it ruled she had waived her right to claim forum inconvenience, and decided Washington was better suited to resolve the dispute because it was the child's home state and it had a closer connection with the child and witnesses concerning the child's welfare.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision, ruling Indiana is a more convenient forum and Vulliet had waived any claim that Washington was the daughter's home state.

The Indiana Supreme Court examined the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Law (UCCJL) to determine if Indiana ever had jurisdiction over the child. The provisions in the law dictate what happens only after a child is born, so the Supreme Court looked to other courts to determine what to do when cases are filed before a child is born.

The high court determined that both states could have jurisdiction over the child. Under Indiana Code, jurisdiction is conferred to Indiana if a child doesn't have a home state and it's in the best interest of the child for Indiana to assume jurisdiction. Before the child was born, she didn't have a home state, so it was justified for Indiana to have jurisdiction.

However, once the baby was born in Washington, that state became her home state and they had concurrent subject-matter jurisdiction to determine custody, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

"Despite that A.S., being unborn, did not have a home state nor close connections with the state of Washington when the proceeding was commenced, the trial court can still properly consider these factors when determining whether to dismiss the action for forum inconvenience because the UCCJL authorizes a court to decline exercising jurisdiction 'any time before making a decree,'" wrote Chief Justice Shepard.

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