Does the Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court lose jurisdiction after a divorce is filed in Circuit Court?

Does the Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court lose jurisdiction after a divorce is filed in Circuit Court?

It depends. In Deline v. Baker, Record No. 2801-09-1, (Va. App. 2010), the Virginia Circuit Court held that the juvenile and domestic relations district court had not lost jurisdiction to determine support because the circuit court never assumed jurisdiction over those issues.   In Virginia, both the Circuit Court, which has exclusive original jurisdiction over divorce cases, and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, which hears family law matters but not divorce, have concurrent or shared jurisdiction over child custody, child visitation, child support and spousal support or maintenance.  In certain cases, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court can be divested of its jurisdiction, or power to hear a case, by the filing of a matter at the Virginia Circuit Court level.

In the Deline case, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court had ordered the father to pay $233.20 per week for the support of his two minor children, and the Court, by an order in September 2002, set the arrearage at $6,455.44 to be paid in weekly installments. On October 22, 2002, the mother filed a bill of complaint with the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach requesting a divorce from the father, but nothing in the complaint addressed child or spousal support or a determination of custody or visitation.

The divorce case was referred to a commissioner in chancery, and the mother testified that she wished all outstanding orders in the juvenile case to “remain in place.” She also testified that the father owned $8,525,96 in arrearage for child support and $1,126.55 for medical expenses, yet she sought no judgment for those unpaid sums. In the final decree of divorce, the Circuit Court ordered that the mother should have custody and the father should have visitation rights, that the mother should pay the monthly medical insurance but all non-covered expenses were to be split equally, and that all further matters regarding child support, custody, and visitation should be transferred to the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court pursuant to Virginia Code §20-79(C).  The mother signed the final decree, saying “I Ask for This.” As a result of the final decree, the juvenile court on three separate occasions found the father in contempt, set arrearages, and sentenced the father to incarceration.

The mother subsequently filed a show cause motion with the juvenile court to establish the arrearages of the father. In response, the father filed a motion to dismiss and a motion to vacate, claiming that the Circuit Court retained jurisdiction over child support, and therefore, the juvenile court did not have the jurisdiction to enter contempt orders. The Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge denied the father motions, found him in contempt, and established the arrearage payment at $53,021.32. Father appealed to the Circuit Court, and the mother filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the Circuit Court had not made any adjudication as to child support and left that jurisdiction with the Juvenile Court.

In his appeal, the father argued that in the divorce action the Circuit Court assumed jurisdiction over child support, thereby divesting the Juvenile Court of any jurisdiction.  In reviewing the evidence, the Circuit Court reviewed Virginia Code §16.1-244(A), which states, “When a suit for divorce has been filed in a circuit court, in which the custody, guardianship, visitation or support of children of the parties or spousal support is raised by the pleadings and a hearing, including a pendente lite hearing, is set by the circuit court on any such issue  . . . the juvenile and domestic relations district courts shall be divested of the right to enter any further decrees or orders to determine custody, guardianship, visitation or support when raised for such hearing and such matters shall be determined by the circuit court unless both parties agreed to a referral to the juvenile court.” In this case, the Court found that the final divorce decree addressed child support, arrearages, medical insurance and non-medical expenses, and transferred to the juvenile court all matters relating to the enforcement and/or maintenance of child support, custody, and visitation. As the Court pointed out, however, the mother never prayed for any relief on these issues.

To review the matter, the Court looked to the case law and established that according to Potts v. Mathieson Alkali Works, 165 Va. 196, 181 S.E. 521 (1935), the court cannot rule on or render judgment on any matter not in the pleadings. Furthermore, the Court established that based on Rogers v. Damron, 23 Va.App. 708, 479 S.E.2d 540 (1997), a court only has jurisdiction over the subject matter if it has jurisdiction over the cause of action and the relief sought. As the Court pointed out in Deline, it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to grant relief not sought by the mother in the divorce action. Therefore, according to Reid v. Reid, 24 Va. App. 146, 480 S.E.2d 771(1997), “The absence of a specific request for an adjudication of . . .  support precluded the court from obtaining jurisdiction over that subject matter.”

Although the father argued in his brief that the mother did ask for relief by signing the final divorce decree with “I Ask for This,” the Court dismissed his argument. As the Court noted, a court should not elevate an endorsement of an order to a prayer for relief in a pleading. See Baylor v. Commonwealth, 190 Va. 116, 56 S.E.2d 77 (1949). See also Burch v. Grace Street Bldg. Corp. 168 Va. 329, 191 S.E. 672 (1937).  In addition, the Court ruled that the father’s allegation that the mother was estopped from raising subject matter jurisdiction failed. According to Lucas v. Biller, 204 Va. 309, 130 S.E.2d 582 (1963), the court’s jurisdiction cannot be obtain by consent of the parties, waiver or estoppel. Here, the Court held that the Circuit Court had no subject matter jurisdiction to make determination concerning child support in the final divorce decree; therefore, those portions were null and void. As a result, the Juvenile Court still retained the jurisdiction to enter the contempt orders, and the support order was not terminated by operation of law. Therefore, the Circuit Court affirmed the Juvenile Court’s contempt orders were valid, and the father’s appeal failed.

You should consult with your Virginia family law lawyer concerning the appropriate court to pursue or defend your family law matters.

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