What is jurisdiction? The basic concept of jurisdiction isn’t so hard to understand. A government has authority over its own people but not over people outside its borders. Divorce is governed by state law, so a state can divorce its own citizens but not the citizens of other states, right? Well, no. The most basic element of a divorce is the dissolution of marital status. The United States Supreme Court held many years ago that states have the power to dissolve the marital status of their own citizens even if one of the spouses does not live within their borders. The result is referred to as a “divisible divorce.” A state that has jurisdiction over just one of the two spouses may dissolve the marital status, it does not have power to determine property rights, like division of marital property and alimony.

How does jurisdiction affect child support? All fifty states in the U.S. have enacted a version of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, a law that determines which state has power to initiate, enforce or modify a child support order when the spouses or parents live in different states. This law (called UIFSA) is not a federal law, but a uniform state law which has been enacted, in slightly various forms, in all fifty states. It does not impose the same child support guidelines in every state, but dictates which state’s courts shall have jurisdiction in cases where the parties do not live in the same state.

How does jurisdiction affect custody? All fifty states in the U.S. have enacted a version of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (or its predecessor, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act), which dictates which state may initiate, modify or enforce a custody order. Many countries around the world are signatories to the Hague Convention, a treaty which facilitates the resolution of international custody disputes.

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