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Former UGA Prof's International Divorce Dispute at GA Supreme Ct

An international divorce and child custody dispute involving a former UGA professor was heard last week by the Georgia Supreme Court. The case involves former Italian professor Silvia Larese and her divorcing husband Robert Bellew, who is currently a graduate student at UGA. The main question in the case is whether their divorce case should be decided by a court in Italy or in Georgia.

Both members of the divorcing couple have filed for divorce, each in their respective countries. This is more than a procedural issue for the parties, however: The Italian court granted temporary child custody to Ms. Larese while the Georgia divorce court granted it to Mr. Bellew.

If a Divorcing Couple With Children Files in Two Different Countries, Which Jurisdiction Applies?

Although a Clarke County court initially accepted Mr. Bellew's divorce action and granted him temporary custody of the couple's son, the case was later dismissed on the grounds that the case should be heard in Italy, where Ms. Larese had filed her case before Ms. Bellow filed his.

The reason for the dismissal of the Georgia divorce is related to international child custody law. A treaty called the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction requires courts in signatory countries to follow certain rules in child custody proceedings. Both the U.S. and Italy are signatories to the treaty.

The goal is to prevent international parental abduction by preventing parents from being able to gain advantage by moving their child custody cases to courts in other countries whose policies may be more favorable in their particular situation.

To accomplish that, the Hague convention generally requires court proceedings involving child custody to be handled by the country where the child habitually lives.

However, another law is at issue in the case -- this one called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). Similar to the Hague Convention, the goal of the UCCJEA is to prevent one parent from filing a child custody action in another state or country in order to frustrate the other from exercising his or her parental rights. The UCCJEA calls for child custody disputes to be handled in the child's "home state" jurisdiction.

In Divorcing Abroad, Was Ms. Larese Trying to Frustrate Mr. Bellew's Child Custody Rights?

The couple's child was born in Italy in 2002, and the couple moved to Georgia in 2004. In April 2007, the couple had an argument that resulted in a police call and simple battery charges against Mr. Bellew. Ms. Larese has since retracted that complaint.

In July of that year, Ms. Larese left with the child on an annual trip to see family and shortly thereafter filed for divorce in Italy. She says that she didn't return to Georgia to file the divorce because she needed to remain in Italy to care for her ill father.

The Italian court has already considered the issue and has determined it has jurisdiction. In fact, the Italian divorce is already complete.

However, part of the reasoning in the Italian court's decision appears to have been that there was the possibility Mr. Bellew might expose the child to "physical and psychic dangers" (presumably based on the battery complaint in 2007). Ms. Larese later retracted her complaint, saying she had "imprudently called the police." If the domestic violence allegation were taken away, would the Italian court make the same decision?

Whether the Georgia Supreme Court determines that the UCCJEA or the Hague Convention should apply, the main issue is much the same: Where is the child's home?

Sources:

  • "Divorce ruling disputed" (The Red & Black, September 13, 2010)
  • Georgia Supreme Court Oral Argument Summary, Bellew v. Larese (S10A1334)

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