Petition of MMV., 2020 COA 94 (June 11, 2020)

The Court of Appeals vacates an order terminating the father’s parental rights due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the UCCJEA.

In 2013, an Arizona court issued an order dissolving parents’ marriage and allocating decision-making authority and parenting time. The Arizona court later issued orders restricting the father’s parenting time, awarding visitation to paternal grandparents, and permitting the mother to move to Colorado with the child.

The mother married the stepfather. In 2018, the stepfather filed separate petitions to terminate the father’s rights and to adopt the child in Colorado. The father moved to dismiss the petitions pursuant to the UCCJEA.

The Mother filed a motion with the Arizona court asking Arizona to decline its continuing jurisdiction over decision-making authority and parenting time. The Mother’s motion noted that the Colorado court had pending proceedings to sever the father’s rights and allow the stepfather to adopt the child. After reviewing the pleadings from the mother and father, the Arizona court found that the child no longer had a significant connection with Arizona and substantial evidence about the child’s care was no longer in Arizona. Therefore, the Arizona court granted the mother’s request and declined its continuing jurisdiction.

In September 2018, the Arizona court reconsidered its determination and with the agreement of the parties retained jurisdiction over the issue of grandparent visitation. The Arizona court severed that issue into a separate case.

The Colorado magistrate held a hearing on the stepfather’s petitions to terminate and adopt. The father raised the Arizona court’s reconsideration order and the issue of conflicting jurisdictions. The magistrate ruled that the magistrate had jurisdiction because the termination and adoption matters were a single proceeding and the UCCJEA does not apply to adoption proceedings. The magistrate also found that even if the UCCJEA did apply, the Arizona court’s reconsideration order was entered without jurisdiction because the magistrate had already began exercising jurisdiction at the time of the Arizona order. The magistrate terminated the father’s parental rights and the adoption decree.

On appeal, the father argued that the magistrate lacked jurisdiction to vacate his parental rights pursuant to the UCCJEA because the Arizona court previously entered a child-custody determination and retained jurisdiction over grandparent visitation.

The Court of Appeals holds that when a stepparent adoption case also requires a court to consider termination, the UCCJEA governs the termination portion of the case. Since the UCCJEA did apply in this case, the magistrate incorrectly asserted jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals vacates the judgment and remands with instructions that the magistrate confer with the Arizona court to determine whether the magistrate has jurisdiction to issue a termination judgement that modifies the Arizona custody order.

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