The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of NJ’s case of Begum v. Palanisamy involves a multi-jurisdictional family and a NJ custody order. While the opinion itself is merely about a variety of motions filed between the parties, there are some interesting issues that arise that allow this blog to address the mirroring or domesticating of U.S. custody orders in foreign countries.
Under the parents’ custody agreement, incorporated into a NJ court order, they shared joint legal custody of their minor daughter, and the child was permitted to relocate to Singapore, with the child’s father in NJ having access to the child in Singapore and in the United States. The order also specified that NJ would retain jurisdiction over the custody matter and the parties were permitted, but not required, to domesticate the NJ custody order in Singapore. The parties returned to the NJ court not long after when the plaintiff mother sought Singaporean citizenship for the child, Alexis. The judge agreed that Alexis should be a dual national, and amended the original custody order, memorializing all the same provisions, but adding language that Alexis would be entitled to Singaporean nationality, and fortifying the provisions that prohibited the parties from commencing any custody modification suit in an Islamic court or the Singaporean civil courts. This second custody order also required the parties to domesticate the order in Singapore as a precondition to the minor child securing citizenship in Singapore. Finally, the NJ judge made some additional statements that mirroring the NJ order in Singapore would “equate automatic reciprocity and resolve jurisdictional disputes…” and “remove a Singapore court’s discretionary determination to exercise jurisdiction while at the same time guaranteeing New Jersey’s jurisdiction.”
The couple continued litigating. At some point, the plaintiff mother, through counsel, explained that despite her best efforts, the Singapore court refused to domesticate the NJ order, because the order used different words and nomenclature. The Singapore judge was willing to translate the NJ language into equivalent language under Singaporean law, but the defendant father refused to alter the NJ court order’s language.
This family’s saga is indicative of the difficulties of mirroring a U.S. custody order overseas. A client should retain competent legal counsel in both jurisdictions early in their lawsuit. A Singaporean lawyer would be invaluable in helping craft language for the NJ custody agreement and subsequent custody order so that there would be more likelihood of it being mirrored, and then advise on the process of mirroring that order (including whether it is even possible) in Singapore. They could also advise on modification jurisdiction. Even though the NJ court professed to have continuing jurisdiction over the custody matter (because the UCCJEA provides for continuing exclusive jurisdiction), not all countries will respect the U.S. concept of CEJ and may nonetheless modify a U.S. order under its domestic law. It’s the old adage that just because you say it’s so does not make it so.