The Uniform Child Custody Act in Layman's Terms | Interstate Custody

Handling child custody when parents live in different states is tricky.

To help simplify things, nearly every U.S. state has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA keeps one state in charge of making and modifying the child custody order for a case. This ensures there won't be multiple custody orders and reduces the risk of parental kidnapping.

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The UCCJEA is quite complex and can be difficult for non-attorneys to understand. It's recommended you consult with an attorney if you have interstate custody issues.

However, if you're planning a move or already live in a different state than your child's other parent, you'll want know to how this will impact your custody order. Learn the basics of the UCCJEA, important terms to know and the laws that protect interstate child support orders.

Which states have adopted the UCCJEA?

Once, all U.S. states followed an older law, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act. Massachusetts law is still based on this.

The other 49 states (plus the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands — but not Puerto Rico) have adopted the newer UCCJEA.

Which state has jurisdiction?

Jurisdiction gives a state the authority to make or modify a custody order.

Multiple states might qualify for jurisdiction based on the following criteria. However, outside of emergencies, only one state can exercise jurisdiction at a time. A state can decline to exercise jurisdiction if it finds another state is better suited to handle the case.

The state that issues the original order is the issuing state. The issuing state has jurisdiction over the order until it decides to transfer jurisdiction to another state. In other words, a parent can't simply move to another state and ask for new custody orders.

Home state jurisdiction

The state where the child lived with a parent or guardian for at least the six consecutive months before the start of the case — or where the child was born if they're less than six months old — has home state jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction based on significant connections

If there isn't a state that qualifies as the home state, any state where at least one parent lives and where the child is significantly connected has jurisdiction.

A significant connection is something that ties the child to the state, like making frequent trips there to visit their parent.

Substantial evidence also helps to establish jurisdiction. This is any insight into the "child's care, protection, training and personal relationships" that allows a court to make a custody decision — for example, witnesses available to testify at trial.

Emergency jurisdiction

If a child living in a state that does not have jurisdiction is in immediate danger, the state where they currently live can assume emergency jurisdiction to make a temporary emergency order.

The emergency order must specify a time frame in which parents can return to the other state to address the issue with a court there. The emergency order remains in effect until that period expires or the other court issues an order, whichever comes first.

If there isn't a custody order nor a pending case to establish one, the emergency order stays in place until a court within a state with non-emergency jurisdiction issues an order. If that doesn't happen, the emergency order becomes the final order, and the state that issued it keeps jurisdiction.

How to register a child custody order in another state

If you live in or move to a state other than the issuing state, you should register or domesticate your custody order so that your state will acknowledge it.

Ask your local family court about this process. Generally, you'll fill out and file a petition to register the order, then mail the other parent a notice with copies of the petition and your court order attached. The other parent is then given time to contest the registration of the order. If they do not, it becomes registered.

Keep in mind, this does not change which state has jurisdiction to modify the order. This just allows your state to enforce the order.

How to change jurisdiction

After you register your order in your state, you can ask your local family court how it can assume authority over the order.

The court can then reach out to the court in the state that currently has jurisdiction. This state can transfer jurisdiction on one or more grounds, including if:

  • Both parents and the child have moved outside of the current jurisdiction.
  • Substantial evidence no longer exists within the current jurisdiction.
  • The other state has more significant connections to the child.

How to enforce an order

Once a custody order is registered with a state that observes the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, the state must enforce the order — even if it doesn't have jurisdiction. This means a court within the state can hold a parent in contempt for disobeying the custody order.

In severe circumstances where the child is in danger of being harmed, the court could order the removal of the child from that parent's home.

How to modify an order

Parents can petition to modify a custody order only within the state that has jurisdiction. If they live outside of that state, they have to register their custody order, then wait for the courts to change jurisdiction before they can petition for a modification.

Child support when parents live in different states

All 50 U.S. states have adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) to keep one state in charge per support case.

Under the UIFSA, there are two types of jurisdiction: personal jurisdiction and state jurisdiction. To make a support order, the state must have both.

Personal jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction is the authority to make decisions regarding someone who's named as the defendant or respondent in a case.

The state has personal jurisdiction if the child involved was conceived there, or if the noncustodial parent:

  • Lived in the state before the child's birth and paid child-related expenses
  • Lived with the child within the state
  • Is the reason why the child still lives in the state
  • Is personally served (given court documents in-person) with a summons or notice to appear in court within the state
  • Accepts that the state has personal jurisdiction over them

Example: Susan opens a child support case in Iowa. The noncustodial parent, Jamie, lives in Utah. Because he agrees the child should stay in Iowa with Susan, Iowa has authority to make a support order.

State jurisdiction

Jurisdiction automatically goes to the child's home state (see 'Which state has jurisdiction,' above). If there isn't a home state, jurisdiction goes to the state where a case is first filed. The other parent could challenge this by serving first or arguing that their state should have jurisdiction.

Alternatively, one parent could open a case in their state of residence yet allow the state where the other parent lives to make the support order. A parent might allow this if it means the support amount will be more or less by that state's calculation.

In any case, the state that issues the order has jurisdiction so long as at least one parent or the child continues to live there, meaning it's the only state that can make support decisions. If both parents move to the same state, that state gains jurisdiction, unless parents agree that they want the issuing state to keep jurisdiction.


A parent who wants to modify their support order after both parents move outside of the issuing state must allow the state where the other parent lives to make the change.

After the original order is registered with the state, it could get jurisdiction to modify the order if:

  • It has personal jurisdiction over the other parent.
  • The issuing state no longer has jurisdiction.
  • The parent asking for the modification is no longer a resident of the issuing state.

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