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Game of Homes: Transatlantic Disputes

Actor Sophie Turner, of Game of Thrones fame, and pop star Joe Jonas have separated after four years of marriage, with Jonas filing a divorce petition in Florida on or around 1 September. The couple have two young daughters (aged one and three) together.

Turner and Jonas reportedly agreed that this summer, while Turner was filming a TV series in the UK, the children would be with Jonas as he toured the U.S with his band, the Jonas Brothers. It is understood that, after Turner finished filming, the plan was she would then travel to New York in mid-September and return to the UK with the children. However, what seemed at first to be an amicable separation quickly turned contentious, with Turner instigating proceedings on 21 September asserting that Jonas had “wrongfully retained” their daughters in the US and arguing that the children should be “returned” to England. The parties and their children were based primarily in Miami, Florida, prior to Jonas’ tour, however they reportedly had plans to permanently relocate to England.

Such a dispute is not uncommon at the outset of the divorce of international couples, as it may set the scene both for where the divorce (and the consequent resolution of financial matters) takes place and establish a status quo of where (and with whom) the children will live. Turner and Jonas have seemingly now come to a temporary agreement - on 25 September they filed an Interim Consent Order in a federal court in Manhattan, which prevents the removal of the children from New York. However, while the Interim Consent Order is binding, it will only remain in place until the Court makes its next ruling, and due to the difficulties of separation for international couples, this is likely only the beginning of the dispute.

Habitual Residence 

The current litigation will turn on where the children are found to be “habitually resident”. Even though Jonas and Turner have temporarily agreed to keep the children in New York, Turner said in her petition that the children’s ‘habitual residence’ is England. Habitual residence is a legal term for the place that is the ‘centre of interests’ of a person’s life – it does not need to be permanent, but it must be stable. Turner was born and raised in England, Jonas in the US – and both children have dual citizenship.  However, Jonas and Turner are international people – the couple reportedly owned property in Oxford, Miami and LA, and frequently rented homes and stayed in hotels with the children, for example in Italy and Las Vegas. At the time of the separation, Turner was filming in the UK, whereas the Jonas brothers had just embarked on a year-long world tour, which will take the band across North America, Europe and Australasia. In these circumstances, it can be difficult to pinpoint any one stable location.

Turner has said in the past that she is homesick for England and wants her children to be educated there. She and Jonas recently bought a house in Oxfordshire, which in her petition she referred to as the family’s “forever home”. They had also sold their Miami home earlier this year. However, the difficulty for Turner is that the longer the children remain in New York, particularly during the early stages of the litigation, the easier it may be for Jonas to build the picture that they are based there. In her petition Turner argued that their eldest child was enrolled in school in the UK, and both children have a circle of friends here. But from the timelines reported in the press, the children will have been with their father in the US since at least June of this year. Whether they will attend school in New York and build up similar connections there while the dispute continues may be significant to the ongoing arguments about habitual residence.

Should the court conclude that the children are “habitually resident” in England then Jonas will be compelled to “return” them to England. What will likely then follow is a dispute as to how much time the children will spend with each of Turner and Jonas.

Jurisdiction

The petition may have been Turner’s first move in a long-term strategy to establish jurisdiction for the English court to deal with the divorce (and consequent resolution of financial matters). While Jonas first filed in Florida, it is now understood that Turner has filed divorce proceedings in England, which is consistent with her view that the family’s life was based here.

Future proceedings 

Whatever decision the court makes about where the children are habitually resident now will not necessarily be the end of the story. Either of the parents could seek permission to relocate the children, either to the UK in Turner’s case, or to the US in Jonas’ case. One thing, however, is clear - when jurisdiction becomes an important factor in family law proceedings, it certainly can turn into a ‘Game of Homes’.

Turner's earlier court documents, filed in the Southern District of New York, said the couple's children, born in 2020 and 2022, have been wrongfully retained in New York City since 20 September from "their habitual residence" in England.

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