Which Court Can Decide Child Custody?

It may seem simple on the surface: A family court in a particular state can decide child custody arrangements and visitation. Simply put, a court will look at the best interests of the child and decide with whom the child should live and how much time each parent or relative should have with the child.

Unfortunately, very little in the U.S. legal system is so simple. For example, what happens if an out-of-state parent or grandparent asks for custody of a child or for visitation rights? Should the parent or grandparent be able to use the court system in his or her own state, or the state in which the child lives? Should the court who issued the first custody arrangement decide?

To resolve questions regarding jurisdiction over child custody matters, meaning which court has the authority to make a binding decision, each state has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act. This Act requires a court to make an initial determination that it has jurisdiction over a child custody case according to established standards.


Each state has an appropriate court to decide child custody matters. Under the UCCJEA, a state court which decides child custody has jurisdiction if:

  • It is located in the same state as the child’s home; or
  • It is located in the same state as the child’s home was within six months of the proceeding and the child is no longer in the state because of his or her removal by another person claiming custody ; or
  • The child and the parties to the case have a significant connection with the state, and there is a substantial amount of evidence as to what is in the best interests of the child regarding custody; or
  • The child is physically present in the state and has been abandoned or there is an emergency such as physical abuse; or
  • No other state would have jurisdiction or has declined jurisdiction and it is in the best interest of the child for the court in that state to have jurisdiction

As just one example of the above, if Parent A moved with a child out of the state, but Parent B wants custody of the child, Parent B can ask the relevant court of his or her home state to decide child custody within six months of the child moving out of state.

Initial Child Custody Decisions

If there already exists a valid custody order issued by a court that had jurisdiction to do so, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act forces other state courts to enforce that order. The reason is to prevent so-called “forum shopping” among different state courts so that a parent or interested party does not take advantage of a particular state’s laws in order to get custody.

Contact An Attorney

If you are involved in a child custody dispute that may involve multiple states, contact an experienced family law attorney to ensure your rights are represented in court.