Joe Jonas, Sophie Turner dispute where their children should live

6 Oct 2023 | Lauren Hall
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Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas are reportedly at loggerheads over which country their two young daughters should grow up in.

Singer Jonas, who recently filed for divorce, is accused of refusing to hand over the children’s passports in a bid to keep them in the US. According to official court documents, British-born Turner is suing Jonas to try and relocate the children back to England. It is reported that the Games of Thrones alum has made an application under the 1980 Hague Convention on child abduction — a move that Jonas has dubbed “misleading at best, and a serious abuse of the legal system at worst.”

This latest abduction filing is another twist in a messy divorce battle for the celebrity pair. But it reflects a wider problem many international families face: where should their children live when the parents go their separate ways?

What’s the law on international child relocation?

If you seek to relocate abroad permanently with your child, you must have either the consent of the other parent or the Court’s permission. If you do not have one of those two things, you could be committing a criminal offence of child abduction if you take or keep the children out of their country of habitual residence.

Abduction is an emotive term, and one that has a very specific meaning in law. Child abduction can be either:

  • wrongful removal of the child from one country to another, or
  • wrongful retention of the child, for example, by not returning the child back to the UK at an agreed time, such as at the end of a holiday.

Child abduction is a crime in England.

How can I have my child returned to England?

If the child is being wrongfully retained abroad and is in a country that is a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention on child abduction, like in the case of Turner and Jonas, the court in that country has the power to order the child’s return to England.

However, the court can only exercise its power if the child is “habitually resident” in England. Determining habitual residence can be tricky, especially for international families who spend considerable time in multiple countries. The court will generally look for evidence that the child is integrated in a social and family environment in England, for example, they go to school here, are registered with a doctor here, and their friends live here.

Does the court have to order a return?

If the conditions are met, then the Hague Convention provides that the court must swiftly order a return of the child to England unless the abducting parent can successfully plead a defence. For example, the court may refuse a return if it would harm the child physically or psychologically, or if the child objects to being returned and they are old and mature enough to have their views taken into account.

As a left-behind parent you must act quickly. A court has the power NOT to order a return if the removal or retention occurred more than one year ago and the child is settled in their new environment.

Ideally, you should seek specialist legal advice as soon as you discover that your ex-partner is thinking about moving abroad. If you are worried that your child is at risk of abduction there are various orders available that could stop the child being taken out of the country in the first place including surrendering the child’s passport. Prevention is always better than cure.

What can be done to prevent such complexities?

The best advice is: agree where the children will live in advance and agree child arrangements in writing ideally with a Consent Order from the court. While you can ask the court to decide on the question of child relocation, these applications are very difficult and raise strong emotions. They can often feel like a tug of war. One parent fears they will lose contact with their child. The other is worried they will not be able to move to their preferred country, which very often is their country of origin.

In matters like this, the court’s decisions are very finely balanced. The Judge’s role is to weigh up whether the move would be in the best interests of the child and will be testing the detailed reasons for moving. The court will look at a range of factors, including

  • Whether the relocating parent’s desire to move the child abroad is genuine (i.e. not motivated by some selfish desire to exclude the other parent from the child’s life)
  • Whether the practical relocation arrangements are well-researched and funded
  • The wishes and feelings of the child (if they are old enough to express an opinion)
  • The child’s physical and emotional needs
  • The impact on the child of losing their established routines, roots and friendships
  • Any risk of harm to the child or either parent if relocation were granted
  • The impact on the left-behind parent and their relationship with the child
  • The impact on the relocating parent if their application to relocate were denied

Preparing a case requires methodical and thorough planning, and seeking professional legal advice at the earliest opportunity is highly recommended. The stakes could not be higher for the parent wishing to leave and for the parent potentially left behind. Families should also consider alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, to attempt to find a workable solution if possible.

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