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Michigan Court of Appeals Holds Oakland County Circuit Court Should Have Shared Jurisdiction With India In Divorce Case

On March 8th, 2018, the Court of Appeals released their decision in Ramamoorthi v Ramamoorthi, __ Mich App __; __ NW2d __ (2018)(Docket No. 336845) holding that the Oakland County Circuit Court had subject-matter jurisdiction in a divorce case regarding marital assets, but India was the proper forum to determine child custody orders with respect to that same divorce matter.

The parties were married in India in 2000 but moved to Sterling Heights, Michigan where they had three children together. In 2015, the parties were separated with the husband staying in the United States for work and the wife residing in India with the children since May 2014. The wife informed her husband that she wanted to leave India with the children to go back to Michigan. The husband, in response, returned to India in November 2015 and beat her savagely after an argument. The wife retreated to stay with relatives after the beating while the husband once again returned to the United States for work. In December 2015, the husband learned that his wife summoned the courage to go to the police to report the beating and he once again returned to India. He gathered male members of his family to pressure and force the wife to sign away all her rights to the marital property. In March 2016, the wife was able to secure safe passage back to Michigan with the help of the American consulate and she subsequently filed for divorce two weeks later in Oakland County, Michigan. Unfortunately, she had to leave the children behind.

The husband challenged the jurisdiction of the Michigan court on the grounds that the wife did not meet the residency requirements to file in Michigan, that Michigan was not the home state of the children under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA") to determine custody issues, and that India was the most convenient forum to hear this action. The husband further attempted to dismiss the proceedings in Michigan because he had filed first in India, but the trial court determined that this motion was not timely filed. Ultimately, the Oakland County Circuit Court granted a default judgment of divorce and awarded sole custody of the children to the wife, despite the fact that the children remained in India. The husband appealed this decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

For a party to obtain a divorce in Michigan, MCL 552.9(1) requires that either the plaintiff or defendant has resided in the state for 180 days immediately before filing and resided in the county where the complaint is filed for 10 days immediately before filing. The husband argued that the wife did not establish jurisdiction to file because she was not continuously present in Michigan for 180 days prior to filing. Although the couple still had a home in Sterling Heights, Michigan, the wife was in India for two years prior to coming back. The Court of Appeals held the established domicile that the couple had in Sterling Heights, Michigan, is not destroyed by the temporary absence of the wife if she had no intention of changing her domicile. The wife had testified that she was still undergoing citizen proceedings in the United States, that she never intended to live in India permanently and that the husband physically and financially forced her to stay in India after he learned that she wanted to leave with the children back to Michigan. The Court of Appeals accepted that the wife never intended to live permanently in India and, thus, the Oakland County Circuit Court always had jurisdiction for the divorce action to be filed there.

However, the Court of Appeals found that Michigan lacked jurisdiction under UCCJEA to make a custody determination because India, not Michigan, was the children's "home state". MCL 722.1102(g) defines a child's home state as "the state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least 6 consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child-custody proceeding." For Oakland County Circuit Court to exercise jurisdiction over the children, it would have to determine that Michigan is the home state, or that another home state declines to exercise jurisdiction, or that there is no home state. UCCJEA defines "another home state" to be applicable to a foreign country. There is no dispute that the children lived in India for six months prior to the divorce filing. There is no evidence that India was unwilling to exercise its jurisdiction over the children. Therefore, the trial court erred when it determined that it had jurisdiction over the custody dispute under UCCJEA.

Under the circumstances, Oakland County Circuit Court should have bifurcated the divorce proceedings, meaning that Michigan would hear and make decisions regarding issues of the marital property and India would hear and make decisions regarding issues of child custody. Michigan would act on child custody only if India declined to take action. Therefore, the aspects of the default judgment of divorce relating to child custody are reversed and remanded back to the trial court to determine jurisdiction with India consistent with the Court of Appeals opinion.

Divorce and child custody proceedings involving parties living in different states or foreign countries can be extremely frustrating and complicated. One should not assume that he or she can simply relocate to a more favorable or convenient court and that would automatically create jurisdiction for their family law issue. It is well advised to consult with an experienced family law attorney regarding jurisdiction before wasting time and money on a legal action that may ultimately become dismissed.

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