Child custody can be a difficult topic for any divorcing couple to tackle. When one parent is a member of the military, determining child custody and visitation can become even more complex. It's important to know that even if you're an active service member, you have a right to be actively involved in your child's life as well. Take a look at a few things that you need to know about how child custody cases affect military members.
Child Custody and Deployment
It's better for everyone involved if child custody issues can be worked out before a possible deployment. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for civilian spouses to time a custody petition, or even a petition for modification of an established custody order, for a time with the military parent is deployed. If your ex-spouse wants to do this, there isn't much you can do to prevent it.
Technically, service members are protected by the Service members Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The SCRA generally freezes civil actions filed while a soldier is deployed, so that the soldier can respond to them after they've returned home. The act applies to child custody cases too. However, child custody cases have a complication. A family court's highest priority is the best interest of the child, and it can be argued that the child's best interest cannot wait until a deployment ends. It is possible to lose custody while deployed. If there's any possibility of you being allowed to return early, or if you can participate in the proceedings via telephone or videoconferencing, it's in your best interests to do so. Fortunately, in many cases, custody placements made during a deployment are considered temporary, so if you can't return or participate and you do lose custody, you do have a chance to reverse the custody order upon your return.
Joint or Sole Custody and Visitation
It's not impossible to be awarded sole custody, joint custody, or visitation benefits just because you're in the military. In some states, the laws protect military members by requiring that the judge make a decision based on factors other than the military parent's service status. Keep in mind that if you have been stationed overseas long-term with your family, the court in your overseas location may have jurisdiction instead of a U.S. court, and in that case, different laws may apply. In most cases, though, it's the child's home state that has jurisdiction.
A relocation can complicate a joint custody or visitation arrangement. If you have an established order, you might need to return to court to have it modified when you receive PCS orders. However, it's not uncommon even for civilian parents to have to split custody or arrange visitation when living in different states, or even different countries. There's usually a mutually agreeable solution that can be reached when parents live far away from each other. Most likely, if you have to move, you and the other parent will have to come to an agreement regarding travel expenses and arrangements and scheduling to allow the child adequate time with both parents. For example, your child may live with you during the school year and their other parent during the summer, with alternate holidays. If you and your ex are on roughly equal financial levels, you would probably split the travel costs.
Family Care Plan
If the result of your custody case is that you become a single parent with sole custody or joint custody, the military will require you to complete a family care plan. This is a document that details who will care for your child if you deploy, how your child will be transported to the caregiver and cared for financially during the deployment, and who will take custody if you die during deployment. If you choose a caregiver that is not your child's other parent, you'll need the other parent's consent for the arrangement, unless you have court documents terminating their parental rights.
Because custody cases involving service members can be so complex, it's important to have expert legal help on your side. A divorce attorney like Cragun Law Firm or one who has experience with military custody cases is the best person to protect your parental rights throughout the legal proceedings.