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Ross v. Ross

Supreme Court of Georgia

September 13, 2017


          BENHAM, JUSTICE.

         This appeal arises from a granted application for interlocutory review. The parties were divorced in Connecticut on January 25, 2010. At that time, appellant Husband's child support obligation was $279 per week for the parties' two minor children. On June 16, 2010, the Connecticut court entered an order of modification to facilitate appellee Wife's move to Georgia with the children. In that order, the Connecticut court reduced Husband's child support obligation to $100 per week. Husband still resides in Connecticut, while Wife and the children live in Coweta County. On January 12, 2016, Wife filed an action in Coweta County to domesticate and modify the parties' Connecticut divorce decree and the modified order.[1] The complaint was served on Husband personally while he was in Coweta County visiting the children.

         Husband moved to dismiss the action on the ground that the Georgia trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify the Connecticut child support order under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), OCGA § 19-11-100 et seq., in particular because the requirements of OCGA § 19-11-172 (a)[2] had not been met. Wife argued that jurisdiction was proper under OCGA § 9-12-130 et seq., which is the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Law (UEFJL), to both enforce and modify the Connecticut child support order. The trial court ultimately denied Husband's motion to dismiss, reasoning that it had jurisdiction to modify the Connecticut child support order; however, it granted Husband's request for a certificate of immediate review. We granted Husband's application for interlocutory review on May 31, 2016, and, having considered the record, the parties' arguments, and the relevant legal authorities, we reverse the trial court's judgment for the reasons set forth below.

         1. Since the 1950s, there has been an ongoing effort to make laws concerning the enforcement of child support orders more uniform across the states. See Margaret Campbell Haynes & Susan Friedman Paikin, "Reconciling" FFCCSOA and UIFSA, 49 Fam. L. Q. 331, 332 (Summer 2015). Prior to 1975, the attempt at uniformity was largely left to the states through the adoption and implementation of the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA). See id. In 1975, while amending the Social Security Act, Congress became more involved in the regulation of child support by conditioning receipt of federal funding on the states' adoption of certain legislative initiatives. Id.[3] These congressional efforts ultimately led to the formation of the United States Commission on Interstate Child Support in the early 1990s. Id. at 333. This commission was tasked with reviewing the URESA and making recommendations to Congress for improving the interstate enforcement of child support. Id.[4] The commission was ultimately responsible for major congressional legislation that would effectively federalize the enforcement of child support, including drafting the model UIFSA in 1992. Id. at 334.[5]

         In 1994, based on recommendations from the commission, the United States Congress enacted the Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act (FFCCSOA). See 28 USC § 1738B. That law establishes a general rule requiring a state to enforce the child support order of another state. See 28 USC § 1738B (a) (1). The law further prohibits a state from modifying another state's child support order if that issuing state has "continuing, exclusive jurisdiction" over the matter. See 28 USC § 1738B (a) (2), (d), and (e).[6] In 1997, Georgia codified the requirements of 28 USC § 1738B at OCGA § 19-6-26. See Connell v. Woodward, 235 Ga.App. 751 (1) (509 S.E.2d 647) (1998) ("On July 1, 1997, OCGA § 19-6-26, which adopts the provisions of the FFCCSOA, became effective in Georgia."). OCGA § 19-6-26 (a) (2) defines continuing, exclusive jurisdiction as "the authority and jurisdiction of a court to enter or modify a judgment, decree, or order for the payment of child support…."

         In 1996, Congress took further action to regulate interstate child custody orders by mandating the states to adopt the UIFSA as a condition of receiving federal funds:

The Personal and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-193), mandated that all states adopt the 1993 Uniform Interstate Family Support Act ("UIFSA") Model Act, and the 1996 amendments adopted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The UIFSA was duly enacted by the General Assembly and is codified at sections 19-11-100 through 19-11-190 of the Georgia Code. The UIFSA was created to force uniformity in procedures and law with regard to intergovernmental establishment, enforcement, and modification of child support orders. Ga. Comp. R. & Regs., r. 290-7-1-.13. See also, Haynes & Paikin, supra, 49

Fam. L. Q. at 336. In keeping with federal law concerning full faith and credit for child support orders, the UIFSA, as codified by the General Assembly at OCGA § 19-11-100 et seq., prohibits Georgia from modifying another state's child support order unless specific requirements are met divesting the foreign state of its continuing, exclusive jurisdiction. See OCGA §§ 19-11-168, 19- 11-169, 19-11-170, and 19-11-172. See also Georgia Dept. of Human Resources v. Deason, 238 Ga.App. 853 (1) (a) (520 S.E.2d 712) (1999) (one of the purposes of UIFSA was to legislate that "foreign support orders are unmodifiable, except by FFCCSOA, Ga. L.1997, pp. 1613, 1619-1620, § 7 (OCGA § 19-6-26)").[7] Accordingly, there are only a handful of circumstances in which a Georgia tribunal may modify another state's child support order:

(1) (a) neither of the parties nor the child live in the foreign state/issuing state; (b) the petitioner who seeks modification is a nonresident of Georgia; and (c) the respondent is subject to the personal jurisdiction of a Georgia tribunal;[8] or
(2) (a) the child is a Georgia resident or an individual party is subject to the personal jurisdiction of a Georgia tribunal and (b) all of the individual parties have filed written consents in the foreign tribunal for a Georgia tribunal to modify the child support order and assume continuing, exclusive jurisdiction;[9] or
(3) (a) all the individual parties reside in Georgia and (b) the child does not reside in the foreign state/issuing state.[10]

         If none of the above factual circumstances exist, then a Georgia tribunal cannot modify a foreign state's child support order.[11]

         In this case, Connecticut has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the child support order at issue because Husband is still a resident of Connecticut and neither party has provided written consent for a Georgia tribunal to exercise jurisdiction over the matter. See 28 USC § 1738B (d); Connell v. Woodward, 235 Ga.App. at 754. See also 28 USC § 1738B (e) (2) (A); OCGA § 19-6-26 (d). Therefore, the trial court erred when it held it had jurisdiction to modify the parties' child support order.[12] If Wife continues to pursue modification of the child support order, she must do so through proceedings in the Connecticut court.[13]

         2. Wife's invocation of the UEFJL does not change this result. That law is necessarily preempted by 28 USC § 1738B as it pertains to her request for the Georgia court to modify the parties' Connecticut child support order.[14] See, e.g., Kilroy v. Superior Court, 54 Cal.App.4th 793, 818-819 (63 Cal.Rptr.2d 390) (1997) (28 USC § 1738B preempts "state court jurisdiction to modify interstate child support orders").[15] Likewise, the cases relied upon by Wife and the trial court, [16] which predate the passage of 28 USC ยง 1738B in October 1994 and the effective date of Georgia's implementation of the UIFSA in January 1998 and which allow for Georgia courts to modify foreign ...

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