As a general matter, in order for a court to issue a judgment or order, the court must have the legal authority to do so, known as jurisdiction. There are two types of jurisdiction a court must have. First, a court must have jurisdiction over the people involved in the case. Second, the court must have jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case. Accordingly, a Massachusetts Probate and Family Court can make decisions regarding custody because it has subject matter jurisdiction in child custody cases. However, before making a custody decision, the court must also have the power to make decisions regarding the child at the center of the custody case.
Child Custody Case Jurisdiction in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, the law provides that a court may exercise jurisdiction over a child custody case if Massachusetts is the child’s home state at the start of the case. Generally, “home state” means the state in which the child lived for six consecutive months immediately before the filing. Massachusetts law further states a Massachusetts court may also exercise jurisdiction over a child custody case where the Commonwealth: had been the child’s home state within six months before the date of the commencement of the proceeding; and, the child is absent from the Commonwealth because of his or her removal or retention by a person claiming his or her custody or for other reasons; and, a parent or person acting as a parent continues to reside in the Commonwealth.
Recently, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided a case in which the issue was whether the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court had home state jurisdiction over a child custody dispute. The parties were the minor child’s mother, who resided in Massachusetts, and the minor child’s guardians, who lived in Michigan with the child.
Guardianship of a Minor
The child at the center of this case lived with her mother in Massachusetts for the first six years of her life. She did not have a relationship with her father. The father’s whereabouts were unknown. After this child’s birth, the mother developed a substance abuse disorder. So, in May 2017, the maternal great-grandmother petitioned the Massachusetts court for guardianship of the child.
In August 2017, the mother consented to temporary guardianship. The temporary guardianship was valid for 90 days. The mother consented with the understanding that the maternal great-grandmother would move to Michigan with the child and the maternal great-aunt. There was also the understanding that the mother could join them once she was drug-free.
Approximately a month later, the mother was involuntarily committed to substance abuse treatment facilities. According to the mother, she reached out to her family to inquire about the next hearing in the guardianship matter during this time. The mother further alleges that her family told her “not to worry about it.”
Massachusetts Trial Court
In November 2017, without the mother’s knowledge, a guardianship hearing was held in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court. The mother alleged that she did not receive notice of this hearing. Nonetheless, at the hearing, the court granted permanent guardianship to the great-grandmother and great-aunt. The trial court judge found that the mother was “currently unfit” to take care of the child, and also noted that the mother did not object to the guardianship petition. The court further authorized the guardians to relocate the child from Massachusetts to Michigan. The new guardians moved to Michigan with the child the following day.
Mother Files Petition to Remove the Guardians
About five months later, the mother filed a petition in the probate court to revoke her guardianship consent and to remove the guardians. The mother did this with the assistance of a court-appointed attorney. The great-grandmother, who also had an attorney, moved to dismiss the petition. She argued that Massachusetts no longer had jurisdiction in the matter because a Michigan court made its own guardianship order.
In support of the great-grandmother’s argument, in January of 2018, a Michigan court did, in fact, issue letters of guardianship. The letters of guardianship out of the Michigan court appointed the great-grandmother and great-aunt as permanent co-guardians of the child. According to a home study report by the Michigan Department of Human Services, the Massachusetts court informed the co-guardians that a new guardianship request had to be made in Michigan. The court said this was because Michigan does not have an agreement to honor out-of-state guardianships. The report also stated that the co-guardians told the Michigan department worker that “they have the biological mother’s approval, which was verified through Massachusetts court paperwork.”
Opposing the guardian’s motion to dismiss, the mother first claimed that she did not receive notice of the November 2017 hearing. She further argued that the Michigan court did not have the authority to issue the guardianship because the child had not been a Michigan resident for six months. The mother’s attorney stated the Michigan court did not contact the mother, and the mother did not have the financial means to travel to Michigan and fight for custody. Lastly, she also argued that it was in the child’s best interest to terminate the guardianship because the child had been acting out and the co-guardians wanted to treat her with psychoactive drugs, even though the mother disagreed.
Trial Court Dismisses Mother’s Petition
The Massachusetts trial court dismissed the mother’s claim. The judge noted a strong belief that the Michigan court’s order was controlling. Accordingly, the judge believed the Massachusetts court no longer had jurisdiction in this case. The trial court judge stated the mother must go to Michigan to seek relief. The mother filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment. The trial judge also denied this motion.
The mother then appealed the decree dismissing her petition to remove the guardians. She also appealed the order denying her motion to alter or amend the judgment.
Co-Guardians File Complaint for Custody of Child in Michigan
In June 2019, while the mother’s appeal was pending in the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the great-aunt filed a complaint for custody with the great-grandmother’s consent. She filed the complaint for custody in the Michigan court. Through this complaint, she sought sole legal and physical custody of the child. She also sought a child support order against the mother.
The Michigan court refused to appoint the mother an attorney in this case. The mother stated that she then tried to file four motions in the Michigan case herself. These motions included two motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. She also filed a motion for the appointment of an attorney. Lastly, she filed a motion to pause the Michigan proceedings until the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided the Massachusetts case. The Michigan court did not rule on these motions. According to the mother’s Massachusetts attorney, the Michigan court clerk’s office said the court would not hear these motions without the mother having an attorney in Michigan.
In August 2019, the Michigan court issued a temporary order regarding custody. This order granted sole legal and physical custody of the child to the great-aunt. According to the great-aunt, a January 2020 judgment granted her permanent custody of the child.
Massachusetts Appeals Court
On appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court sided with the mother. The court held that the Massachusetts probate judge erred in determining the Massachusetts court did not have jurisdiction over the mother’s petition to terminate the guardianship.
Appeals Court Analysis
Mother’s Petition to Remove Guardians
The court stated the operative date for jurisdictional purposes was when the mother filed the petition to remove the guardians. The mother did so about five months after the child’s removal from Massachusetts. Before the removal, the child lived in Massachusetts for at least six consecutive months. So, Massachusetts was the child’s home state when the mother filed the petition. In addition, the mother continued to reside in Massachusetts. “Under the Massachusetts Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (MCCJA), G. L. c. 209B, the probate court has jurisdiction because Massachusetts had been the child’s home state within six months before the filing of the petition, the child is absent from Massachusetts because of her removal by the guardians, and the mother continues to reside in Massachusetts,” the court explained.
The Appeals Court did not agree that Massachusetts lost jurisdiction because of the Michigan letters of guardianship. The court stated the letters of guardianship could not supersede the Massachusetts order. If that were the case, the letters would violate the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA).
Under PKPA, the jurisdiction of the state court that made the initial custody determination can be continuing and exclusive. This is true if certain conditions are met. It is true if, first, the state remains the residence of the child or “‘of any contestant.'” Second, the court must still have jurisdiction under its own laws. The Appeals Court stated, “under the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1738A, the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts courts is exclusive and continuing. This means that the Michigan court was precluded by Federal law from issuing a superseding guardianship order and from exercising jurisdiction over [the great-aunt’s] custody complaint while the mother was pursuing her appeal of the decree of dismissal in this court.”
Great-Aunt’s Custody Complaint
Regarding the great-aunt’s custody complaint, the Appeals Court stated Massachusetts still had exclusive and continuing jurisdiction at the time of its filing. It did not matter that the child had lived in Michigan for more than six months at that point. This is because the mother’s appeal was pending in Massachusetts when the great-aunt filed the custody complaint in Michigan. According to the Appeals Court, “The PKPA provides that ‘[a] court of a State shall not exercise jurisdiction in any proceeding for a custody or visitation determination commenced during the pendency of a proceeding in a court of another State where such court of that other State is exercising jurisdiction consistently with the provisions of this section to make a custody or visitation determination.'” So, PKPA prevented the Michigan court from exercising jurisdiction over the custody matter, pending the Massachusetts appeal.
The Appeals Court reversed the trial judge’s decision and remanded the case.
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