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International child custody dispute before Supreme Court

For Denver-area parents who marry someone from another country, custody battles can get tricky. The laws of various countries, sometimes in conflict, can be confusing. Even Supreme Court justices may be challenged with how to interpret child custody laws that relate to international custody cases, as one parent recently found out.

In this case, an American soldier married a woman from Scotland in 2006. The couple had a daughter in 2007 and lived in Germany for a few years until the father was deployed to Afghanistan. During that deployment, his wife and their daughter lived in Scotland. In 2009 the entire family reunited in Alabama when the husband got transferred there.

When the couple agreed to divorce in 2010, the wife was deported. She then sued to keep her daughter with her, citing the 1980 Hague convention on international child abductions. In her suit, she stated that the child's residence was Scotland, and that by retaining her in the United States, her ex-husband was breaking international law. A federal judge agreed, and mother and child left the United States that same day. That judge also denied a stay of his decision requested by the father.

At issue is whether the father has been denied the right to appeal the original court's ruling. One circuit court ruled his appeal to be moot since the child has lived in Scotland for over a year, making Scotland the place where custody should be decided. The father has now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide the case sometime this spring.

This case shows just how complex a divorce and international child custody case becomes. While the courts seek to determine what is in the best interests of the child, there may be competing interests of the parents that deserve consideration. Parents in any child custody dispute, particularly one involving international marriages, need to know their rights now, and as interpretations of law change.

Source: Denver Post, "Justices struggle with international custody law," Jesse Holland, The Associated Press, Dec. 5, 2012

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