The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, in JS v. RSS, addressed an issue of an international relocation and a U.S. court’s subject matter jurisdiction over a custody modification action. The facts are long and twisted, but the salient ones are: the parents divorced in 2015. The father sought custody of their child with a request to relocate him to Hungary in November 2015. The mother agreed to the father’s custody of the child and the child’s relocation to Hungary, believing the father was entering a witness protection program. The father didn’t move to Hungary, and the parties actually threw the terms of their custody agreement out the window. The mother had significant access to the child. Apparently, however, the father did relocate the child to Hungary in July 2016, unbeknownst to mother. The mother did not see the child after July 2016, but the father still traveled to Pennsylvania, and remained sexually intimate with the mother, even though he had remarried in December 2015. In October 2017, the mother apparently saw the father with his new wife and the child in Pennsylvania, and she filed the current lawsuit seeking a modification of the custody arrangement.
Father sought to dismiss the custody modification suit in Pennsylvania. He argued that Pennsylvania no longer had jurisdiction because the child now lived in Hungary, and, if Pennsylvania did have jurisdiction, it was no longer a convenient forum, so the court should decline to hear the matter. On appeal, the court addressed this argument.
Under the UCCJEA, the court would have continuing exclusive jurisdiction to modify the initial child-custody order it issued, so long as the child and one parent have an important ongoing relationship to Pennsylvania. In this case, the mother exercised significant parenting time in Pennsylvania until the child was relocated to Hungary. Furthermore, the father deceived the mother that he would be returning soon, after he was no longer part of the witness protection program. Even though the child did not see his mother after July 2016 because of the father’s behavior, the child did spend significant time in and maintain connections to Pennsylvania through the father’s travel with the child to PA. Further, the court refused to decline its jurisdiction on a forum non conveniens argument. The mother has never been to Hungary, does not speak the language, and yet the father has significant connections to PA, has lived here, and travels here.
A footnote to the opinion indicates that the father was ordered to bring the child to PA for the hearing, but did not. This of course is the difficult issue faced by a variety of parents in international relocation cases. Under the UCCJEA, PA had continuing exclusive jurisdiction. It modified its order. But, with the child outside of the United States, the next question would be whether Hungary would enforce that PA order. Possibly not. It is also possible that Hungary may deem itself the child’s new home and likewise take up jurisdiction to modify the order, creating a dynamic of competing custody orders.