July 18, 2011

Extended Turkish Vacation: Fourth DCA Affirms Trial Court’s Exercise of “Home State” Jurisdiction to Make Custody Determination Despite Children’s Absence From Florida for Seven Months

Sarpel v. Eflanli, 4D09-4828 & 4D10-3146
June 1, 2011

The Fourth District recently addressed a trial court’s jurisdiction to make a custody ruling under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”). The father had Turkish and American citizenship, and the mother was a Turkish citizen. The family members were longtime residents of Florida. On March 14, 2006, the family went to Turkey. The father returned to Florida on November 8, 2006 and filed a petition for dissolution seeking a custody determination. The mother and children did not return to Florida until January 28, 2007. Following a final judgment designating the father primary residential parent, the mother contended that Florida lacked jurisdiction to make the custody ruling.

“Home state” is defined under the UCCJEA as “the state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least 6 consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child custody proceeding.” § 61.503(7), Fla. Stat. The statute makes temporary absences part of the time period. The mother contended the trip to Turkey was intended to be a permanent relocation and that the father had later changed his mind. The father maintained that the trip was only intended to be an extended vacation. The trial court agreed with the father, finding that the children’s absence was temporary, so that Florida was their “home state” for UCCJEA purposes and the court had jurisdiction to make the custody ruling.

On appeal, the Fourth District reasoned that Florida could be considered the children’s “home state” under section 61.514(1)(a) if it qualified as such at any time during the six months preceding the father’s filing of the petition for dissolution of marriage. Applying the six-month “lookback,” the Court focused on the date of May 8, 2006, at which time the children had been in Turkey only seven weeks. The Court affirmed the trial court’s finding of that seven week absence as temporary and the conclusion that Florida was the children’s “home state” on that date. The Court therefore affirmed the decision.