Custody Agreements for Military Families

Parenting plans for families with parents who are servicemembers have unique requirements.

When one or both parents are serving in the military, co-parenting communication and parenting plans can become complicated. Parents must anticipate and plan for a variety of situations, such as a parent being deployed or stationed across the country, rather than being left to wonder how to handle questions as they arise.

Co-parenting needs are already unique, but factoring in the additional stressors that military families encounter can mean significantly more work when developing a custody agreement. Yet despite this extra work, preparing for as many situations as possible and providing clear and detailed guidelines within a parenting plan are absolutely essential for preventing conflict.

Deciding where to file

The state in which you file for divorce can have a great impact on how your separation is handled. Military pensions, for example, are handled differently depending on where you file. If parents have more than one location available to them when filing for divorce, they should consult legal professionals familiar with military family law in those locations before deciding how to proceed.

Jurisdiction and Residency

In order to have jurisdiction over a divorce, most states require that at least one of the parents meet their residency requirements. Residency requirements vary by state, commonly requiring parents to reside there anywhere from three months to one year, but some have special considerations for military servicemembers. In certain states, for example, absence due to military service does not affect the servicemember’s status as a legal resident.

Jurisdiction over child custody issues, however, may be handled differently than questions of military pensions and other issues. With the creation of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), a child’s ‘home state’, typically determined by where the child has lived for the past six months, has jurisdiction over decisions regarding child custody. Unlike jurisdiction for military pensions, child custody jurisdiction cannot be waived by either parent.

Determining the best parenting arrangement

Deciding on a custody agreement that fits your family’s needs requires vigorous forethought. For a general overview of custody arrangements, read The Different Types of Child Custody. Once you are familiar with the basics, you’ll be better able to focus on the specific questions that need to be answered for military family custody agreements.

Living arrangements

Where your children will live is one of the most important things to determine when separating from a spouse. For military families, when parents may not live in the same state or the military parent may be mobilized to other locations, it may be more complicated than simply deciding which parenting schedule pattern to follow.

Stability helps children thrive, especially after a divorce, but that can be more difficult for a military family to achieve when they must factor in stateside assignments or overseas deployments. To prevent as much upheaval as possible, parents should formulate contingency plans to account for one or both parents relocating due to military assignments.

When parents share custody and one parent moves temporarily due to military service, the other parent typically cares for the child full-time until the military parent returns. Depending on the state, once the military parent has returned from their assignment, the family must resume the parenting plan that they had agreed upon originally within a set period of time. Parents should consult with a military family law professional in their area to determine whether such protections exist for their state.

Communication about military status

Communication is key in any co-parenting relationship, but that’s particularly true for military families. Whether it’s a stateside assignment that moves a parent a significant distance or an overseas deployment, military parents should have a plan in place for informing their co-parent of updates as quickly as possible.

Contact during deployment

For any long-distance co-parent, a plan for communication with their children when they are apart is key to keeping relationships strong. But depending on where the military parent is located, the same methods of communication may not be available. Video chats and phone calls become harder to accomplish as the differences between time zones widen or access to reliable internet decreases.

A parenting plan should provide clear guidelines for maintaining contact between military parents and their children when they are separated by distance. It should also outline the method and frequency with which their co-parent will update them on matters concerning their children, such as doctor’s appointments and schooling.

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) can provide some much-needed protections to military service members when they are unavailable due to military service. But understanding how it relates to child custody matters can be complex.

One of the stated purposes of the SCRA is “to provide for the temporary suspension of judicial and administrative proceedings and transactions that may adversely affect the civil rights of servicemembers during their military service.” In other words, it aims to protect servicemembers from default judgments in civil matters when they are unable to attend proceedings due to military service.

Under the SCRA, judges can grant stays for no less than 90 days if certain criteria are met. These protections are not necessarily granted automatically to the servicemember, however. For example, if the military parent has received notice of an action or proceeding initiated by their co-parent, they typically must provide the following in order to receive a delay:

  1. A letter that explains how their military service affects their ability to appear before the court and that provides a date at which the servicemember will be able to appear

  2. A letter from the servicemember’s superior officer “stating that the servicemember’s current military duty prevents appearance and that military leave is not authorized for the servicemember at the time of the letter.

Servicemembers are granted other protections regarding their child custody arrangements through the SCRA, which also includes regulations for temporary orders and the use of the servicemember's deployment when determining the best interests of the child. The SCRA can be complicated, so parents should always consult a legal professional familiar with its specifics when creating their parenting plan and deciding upon custody arrangements.

Many states have additional protections for servicemembers relating to child custody matters that go above and beyond the regulations outlined in the SCRA. North Carolina, for example, prohibits the issuing of "a permanent order granting custodial responsibility in the absence of the deploying parent without the consent of the deploying parent." Because of these state-to-state variations, it's vital that parents work with legal representation familiar not only with the SCRA, but also well-versed in any and all state laws that have additional effects on military family child custody issues.

The needs of military families are incredibly unique, and they do not become any less complex after a divorce or separation. In order to adequately prepare their family for their new shared parenting routine, parents should aim to make their parenting plan thorough and incredibly detailed. While no parenting plan will be able to predict every question that may arise, military family parenting plans should provide solutions for common situations that are caused by military service.