COA: State with closest connection has custody jurisdiction

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed a trial court’s order granting a New Jersey mother’s motion to dismiss a custody petition filed by her children's father, who now lives in Indiana.

Kyle Wilkinson and Danielle Assante are the parents of two minor children, both born in New Jersey, where the family resided.

In 2014, the parents and children moved to Gibson County, Indiana, where they lived until 2016. Assante and the children later returned to New Jersey, but Wilkinson remained in Indiana. The children have since remained in New Jersey schools and participate in therapy there.

In February 2016, Wilkinson obtained an emergency petition to modify custody from the Gibson Circuit Court, and the Sussex County, N.J., trial court allowed him to use law enforcement officers there to enforce the order. After grandparents intervened, a New Jersey court temporarily restrained father from removing the children.

In October 2017, Assante filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to the Indiana Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA), to which father objected.

The Gibson Circuit Court found that the State of New Jersey was the most appropriate and most convenient forum to determine the best interest of the children “as it is now the state with the closest connections to the Children and their family.”

Wilkinson argued that the trial court abused its discretion by dismissing his petition for custody based on the application of the UCCJA provisions.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, finding that in interstate custody determinations, the UCCJA, codified in Indiana Code Chapter 31-21-5, governs.  Its intent is to prevent parents from seeking custody in different jurisdictions in an attempt to obtain a favorable result.

The COA also noted that the fundamental principle underlying the UCCJA is that once a court with a jurisdictional basis exercises jurisdiction over a custody issue, that court retains exclusive jurisdiction over all custody matters so long as a “significant connection” remains between the controversy and the state.

“That court alone has discretion to decide whether it will defer jurisdiction to the court of another state upon the basis that the other court is a more convenient forum to litigate the issue,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the court.

“Because ‘the court is not limited to considering the parties’ circumstances only as they existed at the time the petition was filed, but rather can evaluate the case on a continuing basis to ensure the Children’s best interests are protected,’ we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to exercise jurisdiction over Father’s petition to modify custody.”

The case is Kyle J. Wilkinson v. Danielle A. Assante, And Paul Assante and Jennifer Assante,18A-DR-327.

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