Missouri Supreme Court addresses child custody jurisdiction issues

gavel.jpgIn Hightower v. Myers, No. 89951 (Mo. banc March 9, 2010), the Missouri Supreme Court considered issues relating to subject matter jurisdiction in a Missouri child custody case that spanned 3 states. The father lived in Missouri, the mother, who had custody of the child, in New Jersey. Over time, the mother had moved within New Jersey several times without proper notification to the father. She then intended to move to Georgia, and did so. The father filed for custody of the child in Missouri. In 2007, the trial court granted the transfer of custody to the father and ordered the mother to pay child support. The mother appealed, arguing that the Missouri court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. She also argued that there was not a continuous and substantial change in circumstances that warranted the transfer of custody.

The Missouri Supreme Court held that the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, which sets forth 4 circumstances where a court has the jurisdiction to hear a child custody case, is not a matter of subject matter jurisdiction, and can be waived. Subject matter jurisdiction can never be waived and can be raised at any time. Subject matter jurisdiction is vested in Missouri courts by the Missouri Constitution, not by statute, and because this was a civil case, the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction. Mother did not argue lack of jurisdiction under the UCCJA, so therefore, she waived it. The court further found that because the mother had moved without notification to the father, had moved to Georgia, and had not allowed the father to have proper visitation he was entitled to, the transfer of custody was warranted.