As promised, today’s blog will laser in on another piece of Marriage Story and connect it to real-world family law issues in Arizona. This installment is about...RESIDENCY! At the beginning of the film, this issue feels innocuous, but viewers see how it is pivotal as the case unfolds. Residency is one of the most critical elements of this film, so I will explore how residency dictates divorce and parenting time realities in New York vs. Los Angeles...and how that plays out in Arizona.
In any divorce, where the suit is filed matters! This sets the case’s jurisdiction (location of the fight) that can significantly impact the case from beginning to end. When children and parenting time are involved, this is a critical determination in deciding where the child will reside. Our standards are not set nationally for family law! Each state has its own unique statutes that will set the ‘rules of the game’ for a case. Under the state’s umbrella, each jurisdiction (county) will have its own rules and social mores that impact the process. First and foremost, US News & World Report found in 2019 that only two states earned an A about honoring the principle of equal parenting time...and the average score in the nation was a D+. Additionally, The jurisdiction will likely maintain control over the case, presiding over all subsequent post-decree disputes regarding parenting time and relocation would be decided by that court. Like I said, this is a big deal; jurisdiction determines the arena of this fight for life. This is why many clients and attorneys engage in ‘forum shopping’, trying to leverage advantage for their cases by establishing the fight in the location friendliest to their arguments.
All states have requirements that must be met for jurisdiction; California’s rule is six consecutive months plus the three most recent months prior to the filing. Conversations in the movie regarding where Nicole went to high school, where she wanted to spend a year, where her family lives...none of those are relevant to establishing the jurisdictional requirement to file in California. In Arizona, residential requirements include proof of residency for at least 90 consecutive days...barring an emergency situation involving child safety. Setting aside these technical issues, let’s focus on the general issue of how the location of filing can affect the process and the outcome.
Assuming Nicole qualified, the movie doesn’t clearly illustrate the hardship the jurisdiction, set by Nicole’s strategy to file in LA, has on Charlie’s life. At the end of the movie, due to his need to split time between his work in NY and his son in LA, Charlie essentially loses his theater company and Broadway show and relocates to LA to take a position with UCLA. Now, we have no idea of the long-term financial or professional impact of this decision, but it is clear that Charlie’s decision not to fight the jurisdiction was the factor in his case that had the single largest impact on the rest of his life as a parent and professional. What lesson does Charlie’s story have for people on the precipice of divorce? The second a spouse files in a jurisdiction that runs counter to your interest...FIGHT LIKE HELL!. Furthermore, whenever an action is filed that is a marked departure from prior discussions/agreements, interpret that as an emergency and hire a competent attorney immediately.
Project forward. Consider how jurisdiction continues to impact Charlie in the subsequent years (spoiler alert: the issuance of a divorce decree is rarely the last time divorcing parties with children are in court). The court with jurisdiction will impact all future custody, parenting time, relocation, and child support issues until the children are adults.
My advice, even if you have every reason to believe you are going to have an amicable divorce, consult attorneys and find one that is a good fit for you should circumstances escalate. The divorce process seems to bring out the worst in people, and you need to know your rights and be prepared in the event your spouse elects to take an aggressive path. One of the biggest mistakes you can make also affected Charlie; don’t be caught by surprise, unsupported, against a deadline you’re not prepared to effectively address. Also, when children are involved, it is very important that you try and maintain a focus on what is best for the child. In subsequent blogs, I will address some of the concerns raised in the movie about parenting and co-parenting behaviors.
Jason Castle is a family lawyer who specializes in high-conflict cases. He's also a former prosecutor & social worker. Hear his latest divorce thoughts!