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Child Custody: Restrictions on International Travel

Parents often fear that after their divorce is granted, their ex-spouse may try to take the children out of the country with the intent to remain there and block visitation with the children. As a result, courts sometimes address these concerns by placing restrictions on the children’s international travel in the divorce decree. What restrictions may be placed on international travel? Could courts go so far as to prohibit the removal of minor children from the United States of America? One recent Georgia case answers this question.

In Sahibzada v. Sahibizada, Husband was a native of Pakistan and had dual Pakistani and American citizenship, and Wife was a natural born American of Pakistani descent.  Sahibzada v. Sahibzada, 294 Ga. 783 (2014). The parties’ two minor male children were born in the United States. Id. “The trial court designated Wife as the primary physical custodian of the children and gave Husband visitation rights.” Id. In the parties divorce decree, restrictions regarding the children’s international travel were made. Id. The restrictions allowed Wife to retain possession of the children’s passport and required Husband to obtain Wife’s consent prior to international travel with the children. Id. The aforementioned restriction on international travel “shall expire as to each child on that child’s sixteenth (16th) birthday where after [Wife] may no longer deny [Husband] periodic and reasonable access to the child’s passport for the purpose of international travel.” Husband argued that the trial court erred when it adopted the restriction on Husband’s international travel with the minor boys.  Id. at 784.

The appellate court noted that “this Court has held unequivocally that a trial court has the discretion to prohibit removal of minor children from the United States.” Id. (citing Mitchell v. Mitchell, 252 Ga. 46 (1984)). In this case, the evidence showed that Husband had no immediate relatives living in the United States; Husband had an elderly mother living in Pakistan, a brother living in Russia, a brother living in Canada, and a sister living in Australia. Id.  at 785. Further, “Wife testified that Husband had told her in January 2010 that he wanted her and their two sons to live in Pakistan with his mother and that ‘he would come and get [the family] when he could.’” Id. Husband frequently traveled abroad and often did not communicate to Wife regarding his whereabouts. Id. At one point, Husband left for Canada, and during that time, “Wife heard from relatives who informed her that Husband had stated that he would return if Wife gave him the boys’ passports and social security cards.” Id. “Wife testified she feared that if she allowed the boys to travel with Husband, even on a trip to Canada or Australia to see one of his siblings, he would leave those countries and take the boys to Pakistan.” Id. at 785. Additionally, Wife stated that she would have no custodial rights to her sons once they reached the age of eight in Pakistan. Id.  at 785-86. Wife also stated that Husband’s relatives abroad had the ability to visit the children stateside.  Id.  at 786. Therefore, the appellate court held that “[g]iven Husband’s frequent foreign travel, his past lapses in communicating his whereabouts, the fact that his relatives have the ability to travel to the United States to visit the children, and the fact that Wife may have difficulty asserting her custodial  rights in Pakistan where she is a non-citizen and Husband is a citizen, we cannot say the trial court abused its discretion when it placed some restrictions on Husband’s travel with his sons outside the country.” Id.

By: Jason W. Karasik, Associate Attorney, Meriwether & Tharp, LLC

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