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.