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Legal Information

Personal Jurisdiction

March 30, 2018

This page has information on what it means for a court to have "personal jurisdiction" over someone who lives in another state. There are many reasons why you might be living in a different state than a person who is abusing or harassing you. You may have fled to escape abuse or perhaps you moved to a new state for another reason. The fact that the abuser lives in another state might create a problem when you try to get a restraining order against him/her or if you try to sue the abuser in your new state.

What is personal jurisdiction? Why is it important?

For a judge to be able to make decisions in a court case, the court must have “personal jurisdiction” over all of the parties to that court case. Personal jurisdiction means the judge has the power or authority over that person to make decisions that affect that person. The judge might dismiss your court case if the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the other party.

Note: In most states, if you file a court case against someone who lives out of state and that party makes an appearance (comes to court), s/he must raise the lack of personal jurisdiction as a defense before or during the first court appearance. If all parties appear and no one tells the judge that the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state abuser, then the judge will likely let the case continue.

If the abuser lives out of state, when will the court have personal jurisdiction over the abuser?

For the majority of court cases, most states have what is known as a “long-arm statute,” which is a law that explains when a court can have personal jurisdiction over individuals who do not reside in that state. The long-arm statute lays out certain conditions, or “minimum contacts,” that must be met for the court to get personal jurisdiction over a party. Although this may vary from state to state, in general, the most common ways to get personal jurisdiction over a party are when the cause of action occurred in the state, the other party was served in the state or the other party has substantial contacts with the state. These are explained more in this section.

The “cause of action” occurred in the state

The “cause of action” basically means the reason that you are suing someone. If the cause of action happened in the state where you are trying to get personal jurisdiction over the other party, this is one way for the court to get personal jurisdiction. For example, let’s say you live in Virginia and your partner lives in Florida but often visits you. If your partner assaulted you in Virginia, then Virginia would have jurisdiction over the parties to hear a court case related to that assault.

The other party was served court papers in the state

After you file a court case, the other party has to be served with a copy of the papers that you filed and be notified of the upcoming court date. If you can personally serve the other party with the court papers in the state where you are trying to get jurisdiction, this will generally give the court personal jurisdiction to hear your court case. “Personal service” means someone other than you or another party in the court case hands the notice and the petition/complaint or other necessary documents directly to the person you are trying to sue. For example, if you know that the other party is coming to your state to visit family, attend a concert, or go to a business meeting, you can arrange to have him/her personally served with the court papers while s/he is in the state.

The party has “substantial contacts” with the state

Generally, courts in many states can also get personal jurisdiction over a party if that party has “substantial contacts” with that state. In most cases, these contacts can be related or unrelated to the court case you are trying to bring. For example, if the abuser conducts substantial business in the state, then the court may be able to have personal jurisdiction over him/her. Substantial contacts can be a complicated issue and if you are trying to get jurisdiction over another party based on these contacts, you should consult with a lawyer familiar with the laws of your state.

Note: There is one important exception to the information explained above. In cases involving custody of minor children, it does not necessarily matter if the other parent lives out of state. The court generally looks at where the children live – and that state’s court usually has jurisdiction over the children and their parents. There is a law called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) that deals with this issue and applies in all states (except in Massachusetts where a similar law applies). The UCCJEA is a uniform statute (law) adopted by individual states that helps to set the “home state” that has jurisdiction over the children, and therefore, the parties. For more information on filing for custody in your state, you can go to our Custody page for the state where you will be filing.