You may be one of many people in Washington who belong to a Native American tribe or are a non-tribal member who married a Native American. If your relationship is heading toward divorce, you might be concerned about litigation, especially if you and your spouse have children but disagree about important issues concerning their well-being after divorce. There are tribal courts throughout the country, including in this state, that adjudicate matters involving tribal members.

Not all tribal courts have jurisdiction for family law matters

If you or your spouse are a member of a Native American tribe, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can litigate divorce issues in a tribal court. You or your spouse must be a member of a federally recognized tribe. This means that the U.S. government has recognized a particular tribe as having existed before the United States became a sovereign country.

If you or your spouse belong to a federally recognized Native American tribe, then the state in which you are filing for divorce recognizes the tribal court has jurisdiction to make decisions and issue rulings pertaining to your divorce. This would include important issues such as property division, child custody or child support.

Authority to resolve disputes and enforce tribal laws

A federally recognized tribe has the authority to establish its own justice system to resolve conflicts and enforce tribal laws. However, in some areas, tribal courts and state courts share jurisdiction. If you’re planning on filing for a divorce, it is important for you to determine whether the tribe that is pertinent in your case is recognized by the U.S. government.

Some tribes have not established their own courts

It may be that you or your spouse are a member of a federally recognized tribe that has not established a tribal court. In such cases, it may be possible for you to process your divorce through a CFR court. You may have heard such a court referred to as a “Regional Court of Indian Offenses.”

“CFR” is an acronym for “Code of Federal Regulations.” The federal government recognizes CFR courts as valid justice systems where criminal or civil cases may be adjudicated.

Be as prepared and well-informed as possible before filing for divorce

If you or your spouse are part of a federally recognized Native American tribe in Washington, you may encounter complex issues regarding divorce that you will want to seek clarification about before heading to court. Even for non-Native American couples, it’s always best to be informed about state laws, child custody guidelines and other important issues to ensure a fair settlement.

By reaching out for support from someone who is well-versed in tribal laws as they pertain to divorce, you’ll be better able to protect your rights and your children’s best interests as you lay the groundwork to move on in life after a divorce.