Parachute kids, the phenomenon of foreign youngsters living apart from their parents for the benefit of an American education, received heightened attention recently due to a violent bullying incident in the Los Angeles suburb of Rowland Heights.[1] While only now receiving popular attention, successful business people and families from all over East, Southeast, and South Asia have been sending their children to study in the U.S. since the 1980s, hoping to give their children a liberal education, escape from mandatory military service, a strong command of English, and a cosmopolitan outlook.[2]

While the idea of parachute kids is that of an unaccompanied minor, many such kids are in fact unaccompanied only part of the time, by parents who spend a few months here and there between their home countries and the U.S.[3] Often one parent watches over and cares for the children part of the time while the main breadwinner stays overseas to support them.

Some such parents may not specifically intend to establish deeper roots in the U.S., and therefore may not consider the legal ramifications of seemingly innocent acts over here. For example, a parachute parent can sometimes be blindsided to realize that his or her relatively tenuous connections to the U.S. can cause an American court to have jurisdiction over his or her international divorce, the division of marital assets, child custody, child support and spousal support.

To illustrate the mechanics of how a court gains power over the divorce of an international couple, let’s go through the steps of its analysis. In California, where many parachute kids end up (notably in the San Gabriel Valley cities of Arcadia, San Marino, Rowland Heights, Temple City and Walnut),[4] the state’s “long-arm statute” allows its courts to make decisions over people and things to the fullest extent allowed by the federal and state constitutions.[5] What a court has jurisdiction over generally requires a somewhat nebulous assessment of whether the subject in question has sufficient contact with the state in such a way that it would be fair to exercise jurisdiction over the person or thing.[6] But regarding divorces, California also requires that for a dissolution of marriage judgment to be made, one of the spouses must have resided in California for six months before filing, and in the county where the divorce petition is filed for three months. (Same-sex marriages made in California are not subject to a residence restriction, if none of the jurisdictions where the spouses are living are willing to hear the case.[7]) Residence, however, here means something more than merely living in California, as one might live in a hotel (Hotel California?) or temporarily to attend school. It means that someone is domiciled in California,[8] a legal fiction that assigns everybody a single jurisdiction that he or she is said to have the most settled and permanent connection to, where he or she intends to always remain or return.[9] The domicile of a person moving into California does not change until he or she both resides in California and intends to stay there indefinitely.[10]

For the parent who moved to California for the sake of children – or for the other spouse remaining abroad – this means that all that is required for their marriage to be dissolved by a California court, per California laws, is for one of them to live in California for nearly any[11] length of time with the intent to change the location of his or her home, as shown by his or her actions and statements.[12] (Despite requiring six months’ residence before filing to get a divorce judgment, a spouse can file for legal separation before that time and amend the petition after six months have passed.[13]) Such actions might include any number of things that ties a person to a new place, or severs ties to an old one: purchasing or selling a home; establishing a business or winding one up; taking a job or quitting one; filing taxes; participating in religious, social, or charitable organizations; registering a vehicle; getting a driver’s license; opening or closing accounts; having social and family ties, etc. It is probably a good guess that most parents of parachute kids have done nearly all of these things.

Why would a foreign spouse choose to file for divorce in a foreign land? Depending entirely on the specific facts of the case, and the priorities of the spouse, there may be advantages to him or her to file for divorce in California compared to an international jurisdiction. It is not true that California family law favors either the husband or the wife, but what its laws are is relatively well-established and clear, with predictable outcomes. The state divides divorcing international couples’ marital property located anywhere in the world, as so-called quasi-community property, generally assigning one-half to each spouse. Parents’ child custody rights are equal. Many remedies exist for the myriad issues that can arise in dissolving a marriage, including restraining orders against disposing of or concealing marital property, to protect against domestic violence, etc. Either spouse may request a divorce as long as he or she wants one, and fault of one party contributing to the failure of the marriage does not generally affect outcomes.

[1] Cindy Chang & Frank Shyong, Teens’ attack on Chinese girl draws comparison to ‘Lord of the Flies’ from judge, Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2015, available at http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-chinese-bullying-20150702-story.html#page=1.

[2] Min Zhou, “Parachute Kids” in Southern California: The Educational Experience of Chinese Children in Transnational Families, 12 Educ. Policy 682, 684 (1998).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 410.10

[6] See, e.g., Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414 (1984).

[7] Cal. Fam. Code § 2320(b)

[8] Whealton v. Whealton, 67 Cal.2d 656, 660 (1967), but see In re Marriage of Thornton, 135 Cal. App. 3d 500, 512–513 (1982).

[9] Smith v. Smith, 45 Cal.2d 235, 239 (1955).

[10] Cal. Gov. Code § 244, Sheehan v. Scott, 145 Cal. 684, 690-691 (1905).

[11] See, In re Estate of Donovan, 104 Cal. 623 (1894).

[12] Guardianship of Mosier, 246 Cal. App. 2d 164 (1966).

[13] Handy v. Superior Court, 185 Cal. App. 2d 21, 23 (1960).