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Jurisdiction: the Pesky Principle that can Hijack your Case

A major advantage of hiring an experienced family law attorney is the peace of mind of knowing your attorney will identify and competently handle any legal land mines that may be hidden in the facts of your case.  These are the issues that would likely be missed by people representing themselves or attorneys who merely dabble in family law.  One especially common – but hard to spot – type of land mine is those dealing with jurisdiction.  Let’s take a look at how one of our recent clients benefited from having her jurisdictional issues spotted and dealt with head-on.

Our client’s husband was a Navy recruiter, and the couple and their two children had moved throughout the country as his job demanded, finally ending up in Wisconsin.  While there, he began having an affair with a woman he met in the Navy.  The couple eventually separated, with the husband stationed in Michigan and my client and the children living with her parents in Indiana.

After having lived in Michigan for almost six months – and the almost is important – the husband hired an attorney and filed for divorce.  The first problem: he had not actually lived in Michigan for six months, and Michigan law requires six months of residency prior to filing, or else the divorce case is invalid.  We ended up taking the issue before the judge, who determined that, even though the husband had not actually lived here for six months, as a military member, he could declare his state of residency, and he had declared himself a resident of Michigan more than six months before filing.  This was enough for the judge to determine the case could go on.

But wait, our jurisdictional joys were not yet over.  When a couple that has minor children files for divorce, the issues related to the children – custody, parenting time, child support, etc. – generally are litigated as part of the divorce case.  However, the jurisdictional rules for child custody are not the same as those for the divorce itself.  A custody case must be filed in the “home state” of the children, which, in our case, was Indiana, because the children had been living there for six months.  Thus, the judge had to sever the two parts of our case: we handled the divorce – property and debt division, spousal support, etc. – in Michigan, and the support office in Indiana took care of the custody case down there.

Though this particular fact scenario may seem unique, issues with jurisdiction are more common than you would think.  And they are important, too: if your jurisdictional issue is handled incorrectly, you may find out years after your “divorce” that you are actually still legally married!  In this case, that would have meant an even bigger problem for this Navy service member – bigamy – considering that he married his girlfriend within weeks of getting divorced.  Don’t wait until it is too late to find out your case needed the expertise of an experienced family lawyer.  Give us a call at (734) 254-1140 to schedule a meeting over the phone or in our office.

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