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PA Courts can modify Tennessee custody order

In the disturbing case of T.A.M. v. S.L.M., 104 A.3d 30 (Pa. Super 2014), Father and Mother shared custody in Tennessee from the child's birth in 2004 until Mother's disappearance in 2011. Mother's disappearance was investigated as a homicide and Father was a "person of interest", but Mother was never found and Father was not convicted.

Following Mother's disappearance, the Tennessee court gave custody of the Child to Maternal Grandmother, who resides in Pennsylvania. Father had supervised visits of the Child until 2012, when his supervised visitation was taken away because Father, apparently, told the Child to burn down the home of Maternal Grandmother and gave his son the matches to do it.

In 2013, Father filed a custody action in Pennsylvania. Father argued that the case should be in PA because no party (Father, Grandmother or Child) resided in Tennessee any longer. However, the court in Erie dismissed Father's PA action because Tennessee held a custody review hearing and refused to relinquish custody. Also, since Mother is missing, perhaps she was still in Tennessee.

Father appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, so that he could file for custody modification. in Pennsylvania. Apparently, Father wished to get away from the court in Tennessee where a judge has already found Father to be a "despicable individual".

Maternal Grandmother argued that this was originally a Tennessee case and that the TN Court refused to give up jurisdiction and Mother might still possibly be in TN.

However, the PA Superior Court found that PA had proper jurisdiction for custody modification, under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA"). The UCCJEA is a standard law adopted by most states so that custody jurisdiction is the same everywhere in the US.

Under the UCCJEA,a state wishing to modify custody (like PA) cannot determine that the prior state (like TN) has lost its jurisdiction. Jurisdiciton is for the original state to decide. However, there is an exception to this rule. The official comments to the UCCJEA state that there will be an exception where "the child, the child's parents, and any person acting as a parent do not presently reside in the other state". In this case, nobody resided in TN anymore (though Grandmother tried to argue that Mother might still be in TN). So, under the UCCJEA, Pennsylvania has proper jurisdiction to modify the Tennessee custody order.

What was really going on here? Why wouldn't Tennessee just give up jurisdiction? It appears that the Tennessee court had a long history with Father and wanted to insure that Father did not resume custody of the Child, due to the horrible facts of this case. But, the law is the law. Under the UCCJEA, Pennsylvania has proper jurisdiction. The Court in PA understood what was going on but noted that PA courts are "fully capable of discerning the facts applicable to the child's best interests". In other words, PA was not going to be patsy for Father.

This case is a good example of why "bad cases make bad law". Father's apparent bad actions made him an unsympathetic litigant. But the law should be followed anyway. Presumably, the Court in PA will give custody to a man who tried to get the child to burn down his grandmother's house and may have done worse.