The Importance of Establishing Proper Jurisdiction in Family Law Cases

In domestic relations proceedings, establishing proper jurisdiction is paramount. Upon the proper establishment of the two forms of jurisdiction needed, petitioners in a family law matter will be ready to have their case heard, but the likelihood of being heard only by a judge is high; contrary to belief, there is no right to a jury trial in a divorce proceeding.

In Alabama, a court must hold both subject matter and personal jurisdiction over a divorce case before it may hear the case. Subject matter jurisdiction, the first required type of jurisdiction for a court to hear a divorce case, is present if: (a) the status of the marriage is before the court; (b) a valid, statutory ground for divorce is pled; and (c) the residency requirement is met. Subsection (a) is fulfilled when the divorce pleading is filed, so long as at least one of the parties to the divorce is domiciled in Alabama. Under subsection (b), the ground stated for divorce must be sufficiently proven; if at least one of these grounds is not proven, a jurisdictional defect is said to have taken place and the proceedings will be deemed void.

Because of subsections (a) and (c), personal jurisdiction (further detailed below) is necessarily included in subject matter jurisdiction. Filing fees are always required, and differ in amount based on the county you are filing in. If the required filing fees are not paid, a jurisdictional defect is considered to have occurred. Because of this, careful planning is required for a properly filed divorce action to hold weight in Alabama’s court systems. For this reason, if you are considering proceeding with a domestic relations matter, it is highly important that you consult with an experienced family law attorney.

Personal jurisdiction is the power of the court to hear cases involving persons. Because this type of jurisdiction is territorial, there are a couple of different considerations that come into play when making a determination as to whether this type of jurisdiction exists. Firstly, at least one party to the marriage must be domiciled in Alabama. Domicile is more than mere residence; it requires residence at a particular place and an intent to remain there, either permanently or indefinitely. It can be proven by establishing a homestead, by registering to vote, by having a valid driver’s license with an Alabama home address listed, and by establishing a bank account and opening power and utility accounts, among other things.

Secondly, establishing personal jurisdiction is even more simplified when both parties are domiciled within the State. If one party to the divorce is a nonresident, the resident party must have been a bona fide resident of Alabama for six months before the filing of the complaint, and this must be alleged and proved in the complaint.

As stated above, establishing proper jurisdiction before the court is highly important when proceeding with a domestic relations matter. It is vital to consult with an experienced attorney regarding these issues when considering placing such a case before an Alabama court.