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Legal Information

Court System Basics

How do I know what court has the power (subject matter jurisdiction) to hear my case?

Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority or power that each court has over certain types of legal disagreements (disputes). For a court to hear a particular case, it must have subject matter jurisdiction over the issue or issues that you are asking the court to decide on. Some courts, called courts of general jurisdiction, will have subject matter jurisdiction over many different kinds of cases. Any issues that come up in court that are outside of that court’s subject matter jurisdiction have to be disregarded or dismissed because the court has no legal power to decide over them. For example, if someone dies and s/he has a will, typically every county will have a special court, sometimes called surrogate’s or probate court, that can make decisions on whether the will is valid and how the property listed in the will should be distributed. If you try to bring a case about a will into family court, the family court usually does not have subject matter jurisdiction to make decisions about a will and may not be able to make a ruling on your case. You might have to file multiple petitions in different courts to get the outcome you are looking for. For example, if you want child custody, child support, and a protection order, in some states, you might have to file three different petitions in two or three different courts.

When deciding in which court to file, it is important to know what your goals are, what you are trying to accomplish by filing a petition/complaint, and which court is able to provide you with the relief that you are looking for. To find out which specific court you have to go to in your state, you could ask a lawyer or court clerk in your area. Make sure to let the court clerk know what goal you are trying to accomplish so that s/he can give you the appropriate forms/petitions. We have a list of courthouses that have power to decide on protection orders in each state on our Courthouse Locations page.