U.S. Supreme Court Allows Overseas Custody Battle to Continue Stateside: What Does this Mean for Family Law Practitioners?

By February 21, 2013

By Deborah S. Chames and Christina Echeverri
A recent Supreme Court ruling in Chafin v. Chafin sets the stage for future custody battles where one parent is not a U.S. citizen.  In Chafin, the wife is a citizen of the United Kingdom and the husband is a U.S. citizen and a sergeant in the U.S. army.  When Mr. Chafin returned from a tour in Afghanistan in early 2010, he was relocated to Alabama.  Ms. Chafin had been residing in Scotland with the couple’s minor child while Mr. Chafin was deployed.  Soon after returning, he filed for divorce in Alabama state court.

At the end of 2010, Ms. Chafin was arrested for domestic violence, which alerted authorities to her expired visa and she was deported.  The minor child remained with her father in Alabama.  In May 2011, Ms. Chafin initiated a proceeding in Alabama federal court to return the child to Scotland.  In October, 2011, the court ruled in favor of Ms. Chafin, who subsequently took the child to Scotland and initiated custody proceedings there.  Mr. Chafin’s appeal made its way to the Supreme Court, which held that U.S. courts are not divested of jurisdiction simply because the minor child no longer resides in the U.S.
The implications for future family law cases are interesting.  In this case, the husband filedfor divorce in the United States, seeking custody of the minor child.  Simply because the wife was successful in having a lower court in the U.S. grant her request for the child to be relocated to Scotland, does not automatically mean that the husband is forced to litigate in Scotland.  While the Supreme Court acknowledges that there may be potential difficulties enforcing a judgment entered by a U.S. court, the fact of the matter is that Mr. Chafin has the right to pursue his claims here, particularly since he filed for divorce at a time when Ms. Chafin was still living here and there were no jurisdictional challenges.
In Florida, where international relationships are common, this case helps to preserve the rights of litigants who want to seek child custody in this country.  Even if one party moves back to his or her home country with a minor child, an American citizen is not automatically stripped of his or her access to a U.S. court.