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Child Custody | Family

How Does Child Custody Work for Military Couples?

8 min read
Francesca Toledo, J.D.

by Francesca Toledo, J.D.

Child-related matters are challenging on their own but add in the complication of one or more parents being in the military and it’s truly a recipe for stress. 

Child custody matters are similar for military parents, with some exceptions. These exceptions make it slightly easier for military parents to handle custody matters and allow them to reach a fair custody arrangement.

Child custody issues are difficult to navigate on your own, but an unbundled child custody lawyer has the knowledge and experience required to help get you the most favorable outcome. 

What Does Child Custody Mean?

When dealing with child custody matters, it’s helpful to begin by understanding what custody means. Many assume custody simply gives a parent the right to have a child live with them, but it doesn’t end there. 

There are several ways to create a custody arrangement that suits the child, family, and the circumstances at hand. 

“Custody” Has Several Meanings Under Family Law

Custody can either be physical or legal, and sole or joint.

Physical custody refers to the physical location of the child or where they reside. One parent alone may get physical custody of their child, or the parents can share physical custody, with the child spending time with both parents.

Legal custody is entirely different, as it gives a parent the right to make decisions regarding their child’s life and upbringing. From deciding where the child will attend school to what religion the child will practice, parents are responsible for making many decisions for their children. Depending on the situation, one parent may be granted legal custody, or both parents may share legal custody.

Sole custody gives one parent both physical and legal custody of their child. The other parent, the noncustodial parent, may have visitation rights or may have access to their child revoked altogether, based on the circumstances.

Joint custody allows both parents to share physical and legal custody of their children. The child can spend time with both parents, whether 50/50 or otherwise. While joint custody is usually the goal, it is not always feasible or best for the child’s well-being. 

In some cases, parents can decide what custody arrangement works best for them and their children. Otherwise, a family court judge can make custody decisions based on the child’s best interests. 

Legal Rights of Military Servicemembers

Being in the military is tough for many reasons. When you’re on active duty and your child’s other parent initiates legal proceedings, you may feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to deal with that on top of everything else. Fortunately, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act affords certain protections.

Under this Act, servicemembers can obtain a delay in their military divorce proceedings if their military service impedes their ability to handle their case. Specifically, under the SRCA, spouses cannot unilaterally change child custody status while a servicemember is deployed. 

Additionally, each state has laws that protect military service members concerning child custody and visitation. To better understand the protections of your state’s laws, be sure to speak to a child custody lawyer in your area.

Custody Arrangements for Military Couples

Custody arrangements don’t vary much between traditional couples and military couples. When parents are in the military, they may be able to accomplish the same type of custody arrangement as regular, non-military parents. 

Usually, a custody arrangement is set in place for parents to follow. Should one or both parents deploy, the arrangement comes to a pause. Once parents return from deployment, they can resume their regular custody and visitation schedule. 

The big difference with military parents comes in making contingency plans should one or both parents be deployed. Custody arrangements rely upon whether only one parent is in the military or both parents are service members and at risk of being away from home at the same time.

When One Parent Is in the Military

Typically, when only one parent is in the military, the child is left full-time with the non-service member parent while the military parent is deployed. 

If parents share custody of their child and the military parent leaves home, the custody schedule is put on pause while the child stays with the co-parent. The child usually remains in the care of that parent until the military parent returns and the custody schedule can resume. 

If one parent has sole custody of their child, and that parent happens to be in the military, they must make childcare plans with another individual that will act as guardian until the parent returns. 

When Both Parents are in the Military

When both parents are in the military, it can be particularly challenging. There is often a risk that both parents may be deployed at once, leaving the child without seeing either parent for an extended period. 

In the event only one parent is deployed, the child would stay with the other parent full-time. Should both parents be deployed at the same time, they must leave the child in the care of a trusted guardian. Guardians can be grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other family members or friends. 

Both parents being service members makes it especially important to have a solid plan for childcare since there is always a chance both parents may need to leave at the same time. 

The Role of a Family Care Plan

Military service members are required to create and maintain a family care plan. A family care plan provides critical family information, including your children, medical needs, and child care. A family care plan is helpful for any family, but specifically military families, as deployment and time away from home, are often required.

Family plans should include as much information as possible, including:

  • Children and parent’s information 
  • Caregivers’ contact information
  • Information regarding financial support for a child when a parent(s) are deployed
  • Details on who is to take over childcare in the event of parent(s) death

Regardless of custody arrangement, military parents must always have updated family care plans ready, as military service can be unpredictable. 

Common Concerns for Military Parents

Being in the military is tough, especially when you have minor children. Engaging in a custody case often brings about many concerns for military parents, including some of the following.

Does Being in the Military Affect My Chances of Getting Custody?

No, in most cases, being in the military should not negatively affect your chances of getting custody. 

Judges must examine several factors before making determinations regarding child custody, including the child’s age and health, the parents’ ages and health, and the child’s needs. The goal is always to do what is in the child’s best interest, and absent any circumstances deeming a parent unfit, what’s often best is for a child to have both parents present and active in their life. 

The fact that a parent is a service member alone is not typically enough to impact their chances of getting custody.

Can I Get Joint Custody if I’m in the Military?

Yes, it is possible to get joint custody even if you are an active service member. Being in the military does allow for time at home. While you’re at home, you and your co-parent can share custody of your child.

When a military parent with joint custody gets deployed, the other parent takes over full custody of the child while the service member parent is gone. 

If joint custody is what is best for the child, simply being in the military is not enough to impede that. 

Can Child Custody Arrangements Ever Be Modified for Military Parents?

Child custody arrangements can be modified, but only under certain circumstances. States have different requirements for the modification of custody orders.

It is important to note that one parent cannot successfully modify a custody order while a military parent is deployed. If one parent wishes to change a custody order but the other parent is deployed, the SCRA can kick in to delay proceedings until the military parent is present and able to handle the case.

In some cases, if necessary, courts may grant temporary modifications to custody orders if a change is necessary to reflect a military parent’s absence. 

Rely on an Experienced Unbundled Lawyer for Guidance on Child Custody

When dealing with child-related matters for service member parents, it’s important to work with a custody lawyer that’s familiar with the rights and needs of military parents. An unbundled lawyer can provide quality legal assistance.

When you need help with your military child custody case, count on a knowledgeable unbundled custody lawyer in your area. Unbundled Legal Help can match you with the right attorney to help you reach the most favorable outcome for everyone involved.

Child custody matters can be stressful, but you don’t have to deal with them alone. Contact us today to get started

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