Jurisdiction – Divorce Wars Between Courts
Jurisdiction is a common question in many cases. In Michigan
, the question arises in divorce
or dissolution cases when married parties spend their entire married life as residents of one state; and when the marriage is in decline, one of the parties moves to another state and then seeks to have his/her divorce
or dissolution in the state in which the party moved.
This is not often problematic because the question of whether or not the new state has jurisdiction (the right, power, or authority to administer justice by hearing and determining controversies) is never raised. Often times, the spouse who stayed in the state where the marital relationship existed does not object to jurisdiction. The spouse in the marital state, generally the defendant, will file his or her Answer, and the case will proceed as any divorce or dissolution case. However, there are certain times where this is just not the case. Sometimes the defendant will object to the new state’s jurisdiction. They will argue that the court does not have the right to make rulings against their person or their property. This is often true as no state has the authority to exercise jurisdiction and authority over a person outside its territory. However, if a person has manifested some contact with the new state, the new state may be able to exercise jurisdiction over him or her. This is what the courts refer to as minimum contacts.
Minimum contacts are sufficient dealings or affiliations with the state which make it reasonable to require the defendant to defend a lawsuit brought in that state. International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 66 S.Ct. 154, 90 L.Ed. 95 (1945). If one has minimum contacts with the state, both Michigan statute and the U.S. Constitution will generally find jursidiction to exist.
The facts and situations in any given case can vary so greatly that it would be impossible to account for every single instance in which a Court can exercise jurisdiction over a person or their property. It may sometimes require that legal research be done to determine one’s ability to exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant or ones’ ability to object to jurisdiction being exercised over him or her.
In an attempt to take something as antiquated as the law and make it fun, I have created a case study in which the law can be applied to help those who would like to better understand the concept minimum contacts as it applies to jurisdiction.
Joe Smith and Jane Warner Hypothetical Joe Smith is a mechanic in Phoenix, Arizona. While on vacation with his buddies in California, he meets the beautiful Jane Warner while she is working as a waitress. Jane is attempting to become an actress but has to work as a waitress until she can find work. Through many telephone conversations from Arizona to California and California to Arizona, and many weekends spent together, Joe and Jane find that they are in love. Joe convinces Jane to move to Phoenix with him. After living together in Phoenix for a year, Joe and Jane decide that it is time to get married and have a family. They are married in Phoenix, and they eventually purchase a house in a suburb just outside Phoenix. Joe and Jane have two (2) children (Jack and Jill). Throughout their marriage, Joe and Jane visited Jane’s family in Michigan. They went there for almost every Christmas weekend, they attended Jane’s sister’s graduation, they attended Jane’s sister’s wedding, and they went to the annual Warner Family Reunion. Other than these visits, Joe and Jane Smith spent the entirety of their marriage in Phoenix.
After being married for twenty-two (22) years and having seen their two (2) children grow up, Jane starts having regrets. Her best friend, Sarah Jessica Parker, whom she grew up with in Michigan, had become a big movie and television star. She even had her own clothing line! Jane began to resent Joe. She wanted to move back to California and try her luck at acting again. She signed up for acting classes. Jane stopped spending as much time at home as she was deeply involved in becoming an actress. She stopped eating dinner with Joe, she stopped watching American Idol with Joe; and it got to a point where she would only say hello and goodbye to Joe in any given week. Joe started drinking, and one night at a strip club, things just went a little too far. Joe immediately told Jane everything that happened, but Jane was so distraught she called her sister in Michigan, who immediately drove to Phoenix, Arizona, and picked her up. Jane returned to Michigan. Jane stayed in Michigan for the next year and a half. She found work as a waitress. Jane now wants a divorce. Does Michigan have jurisdiction over Joe so that it can determine the status of Joe and Jane’s marriage and the distribution of their marital and separate assets?
If Jane files a Complaint for Divorce in the State of Michigan and Joe then files an Answer, the Court would, in fact, have jurisdiction. The Court has jurisdiction because Joe filed his Answer in the Court; and in doing so, consented to their jurisdiction. Hess v. Palowski, 274 U.S. 352, 47 S.Ct. 632, 71 L.Ed. 1091 (1927). If Joe were in the State of Michigan for a visit with the family and a process server served him with the divorce papers, even if he was in the state for a short period of time, Michigan would, in fact have, jurisdiction. See, Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 24 L.Ed. 565 (1877).
Assuming that Joe does not file an Answer and instead objects to jurisdiction entirely, would there still be jurisdiction? This is where things can become tricky. Looking strictly to the concept of minimum contacts, in the State of Michigan, Joe will probably have a good case. The reasoning for this is that Joe only visited Michigan on a few occasions. He did not do business in Michigan, he did not commit a tortious act in Michigan, he does not have minor children living in Michigan in which he sends child support payments, he does not own property in Michigan, the marital relationship did not exist in Michigan (it existed in Arizona), and many other factors show that he probably does not have sufficient minimum contacts as to be subject to Michigan's jurisdiction. The Court in this case probably will not be able to rule on Joe’s person (i.e. cannot order child support payments, spousal support payments, or divide the parties’ marital property). However, the court will have the power to rule that the parties are in fact divorced. As long as Jane has lived in Michigan for the six month period of time required by the statute, the Court will be able to rule on the status of their marriage; but it will not be able to divide the parties’ marital property, order child support, or order spousal support. It will only be able to say that the parties are no longer married.
Despite the fact the Courts have laid out the answer to many questions of what is considered minimum contacts in jurisdiction cases, there are still several fact patterns and possibilities that are undiscovered or that are undetermined by the Courts. The idea of jurisdiction and whether or not a Court has it over you can sometimes be overwhelming, as the law continues to change and develop just as society changes and develops. Today the Courts are dealing with the concept of Internet jurisdiction. Does sending an e-mail from your home computer to someone in another state make you subject to that other state’s jurisdiction? Does someone in Texas accessing an internet page you posted while in the State of Michigan have the right to sue you in a Court located in Texas? Not all questions are easily answerable and rely heavily upon the facts of any given case.