Virginia’s judicial system for deciding issues of child Custody, Visitation, child support, and spousal support can be somewhat confusing to those not familiar with it. Virginia has a dual court system called “concurrent jurisdiction”, in which both the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court
(the J&DR Court) and the Circuit Court have the authority to decide these issues.
The Circuit Court is the “higher” court, and also has general jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters. The J&DR Court is the “lower” court, and its authority is closely outlined by statute (Section 16.1-241 of the Code). However, the Circuit Court only decides issues of custody, visitation, and support in certain situations, including appeal from the J&DR Court, a divorce action, or a suit for “separate maintenance” between spouses. In all other cases, where the parties are not married, or where the parties are married but neither has filed for divorce, or there is no order of the J&DR Court being appealed, the J&DR Court has original jurisdiction over custody, visitation, and child support matters.
Any ruling of the J&DR Court can be appealed for a “de novo” (new) trial in the Circuit Court. Once this occurs, the J&DR Court can enforce its prior order, but lacks the authority to make any further rulings on custody or support. The J&DR Court can also be deprived of jurisdiction to enter any further orders on custody, visitation, or support if an action is filed in the Circuit Court on those same issues and a hearing is scheduled on those issues within 21 days. This would typically occur when one party files for divorce while the custody, visitation, or support proceedings are pending in the J&DR Court, and schedules a “pendente lite” (temporary) hearing on those same issues. In any event, once the Circuit Court issues an order, either temporary or permanent, relating to custody, visitation, or support, the J&DR Court loses further authority to issue orders on those same issues.
However, the Circuit Court has the authority to refer jurisdiction of custody, visitation, and support matters back to the J&DR Court, either after issuance of a temporary order or a final order in the Circuit Court, whether in a divorce or following a final ruling on an appeal from the J&DR Court.
Understanding which court you should petition to decide issues of child custody, visitation, child support, or spousal support is one that should be made in close consultation with your attorney. In some cases, it would be advisable to seek relief in the J&DR Court, while in some it may be wiser to
seek rulings on these issues in the context of a divorce filing in the Circuit Court. In some instances, the J&DR Court may be your only avenue to seek rulings on custody, visitation, or support, and in some instances you may file in both courts at the same time, seeking divorce in the Circuit Court and
custody, visitation, child support, or spousal support rulings from the J&DR Court.
Virginia’s concurrent jurisdiction system may be confusing, but it also provides much needed flexibility for attorneys and clients in family law cases to seek relief in the court that best suits their needs.