Jurisdiction (The Power of the Court)
In Dissolution of Marriage Cases Under Arizona Law

By James L. Stroud

        Jurisdiction means power or authority. The first step in deciding whether to file a court case is deciding whether the state's courts have the appropriate jurisdiction. The following are simplified generalizations, which are subject to exceptions in various situations. These materials only apply to Arizona law. The law may be different in other states. This article should be thought of as a glossary rather than legal advice about particular case. It cannot take the place of consulting a lawyer.

        Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of the court to make decisions on a particular topic. In dissolution of marriage, post-dissolution, and child custody cases, the court only has the powers specifically granted to it by the Legislature. For example, there is a law that determines which state's courts have jurisdiction to decide child custody. The parties cannot file their child custody case in Arizona if it is supposed to be in another state under the law, even if they both agree, because they cannot expand the subject matter jurisdiction of the court.

        Generally, subject matter jurisdiction over child custody and visitation lies in the state where the child has most recently lived for a period of six months. This is required by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA), which has been adopted by all 50 states, and the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA), which has been adopted by Congress. So if one parent leaves the other and takes the child to live in another state, usually a custody or visitation case can be filed in the new state when the child has lived there for six months. Until then, the old state has subject matter jurisdiction.

        If there has been a previous custody or visitation order, jurisdiction to modify custody or visitation remains in the state that issued the order, for as long as either party still lives there. If neither party still resides in that state, then the power to modify custody or visitation lies in the state where the child has most recently lived for a period of six months.

        Subject matter jurisdiction to dissolve the marriage exists in Arizona, if either party has been domiciled here for at least ninety days. Either party can file the case, even if he or she is not the one who is domiciled here. But having jurisdiction to dissolve the marriage does not necessarily mean this state has jurisdiction to rule on child custody, visitation, support, spousal maintenance (alimony), division of debts, awarding of attorneys fees, etc.

        Division of assets can be carried out in an Arizona dissolution case if the assets are located here, even if the other spouse is not domiciled here. This is known as in rem jurisdiction, which means jurisdiction over the thing.

        Personal jurisdiction is the power of a court over a person. Making an order for payment of money or division of assets located outside this state requires having jurisdiction over both parties. Filing the case gives the court jurisdiction over the party who files. Jurisdiction over the other party can be established in any of these ways:

In summary, the court must have both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction to make a ruling on any topic, except that if the court has subject matter jurisdiction, it can dissolve the marriage, divide the assets located in Arizona, and rule on child custody or visitation without having personal jurisdiction over the other party.


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