Even the most hassle-free divorces and custody arrangements can become complicated and bitter when one parent moves away. A job opportunity outside of California (especially in a rough economy) or a crisis with an elderly parent can mean negotiating a whole new custody and visitation agreement.
When one or both spouses are in the military, the problem is even more complicated. While civilian families usually have a choice about leaving, a service member has no choice when it comes to deployment. Because parents often end up in different states or different countries, custody questions are much harder to settle.
State law, not federal law, governs divorce, custody, support and other family law matters — at least, state law has traditionally governed family law matters. That could change if Congress passes a law that would modify the child custody provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
The amendments would insure minimum protections for military moms and dads, according to one House sponsor. Courts treat military parents as absent parents, the sponsor explained, and there is a general bias against absent parents. A court should not use active duty deployments or reassignments against them in custody decisions.
A representative of the Uniform Law Commission, though, says that Congress is out of line: Family law is the states’ bailiwick. And, the commission has just approved the Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act, a model act that state legislatures can use to revise their own statutes. The model law goes well beyond the deployment absence measure in the federal bill.
Aside from the states’ rights issue, the commission believes the federal law will only confuse service members about jurisdiction, and jurisdiction in these matters is already confusing enough. In fact, the model law tackles jurisdiction in some detail.
Service members aren’t the only ones who are confused: State courts have struggled with questions like which state court can handle a custody case when the deployed parent has been transferred out of state. Other problems include what happens to a temporary custody arrangement when a parent returns from deployment and the visitation rights of a step-parent or grandparent when a parent is deployed.
Source: USA Today, “Panel: Improve child custody rules for military,” Associated Press, July 18, 2012