Parenting While Serving: Child Custody Tips for Military Parents

Parenting While Serving: Child Custody Tips for Military Parents Parenting is challenging. However, when one or both parents serve in the U.S. armed forces, child custody arrangements can be even more difficult. One parent may be required to live on a military base or be deployed to another state or country with little or no notice, while the other has the responsibility for caring for the children and continuing to foster the relationship that they have with the absent parent. Effective co-parenting should be the goal for all divorced parents, whether they serve in the military or not.

Here are some tips for being a great parent while managing the unique issues that divorced military personnel face:

1.    Make a plan

When deciding child custody involving military families, Texas courts consider the best interests of the child, and the military service of one or both parents should not be a factor. However, military life often presents some unique issues that can potentially affect the parent-child relationship.

Whether one or both (or neither) parents serve in the military, custody and visitation matters can be settled through a mutual agreement. Numerous military families create family care plans – that outline what will happen when one parent is deployed versus when both are home. Family care plans typically contain the following:

  • Contact information for temporary and long-term caretakers
  • Written consent from both parents
  • Information detailing how children will be supported financially while one or both parents are deployed
  • The person who will retain custody of the child should the service member die

Although an informal family care plan is not the same as a court order, the parents can ask the court to issue an order consistent with the plan to help ensure compliance with the agreement. There are also certain circumstances when the military requires that a family submit a formal family care plan to their commanding officer. These situations include:

  • When the service member is a single parent with custody of a child under the age of 19, or shares custody of the child with another parent to whom they are not currently married
  • When the service member is the lone caretaker of a child under age 19 or an incapacitated adult family member
  • When both parents are service members who have joint custody of a child under age 19

Although it typically serves the best interests of the family when both parents agree on a parenting plan, it’s critical to have any formal family care plan reviewed by an experienced attorney.

2.    Prepare for possible relocation

A service member’s child custody agreement should always include provisions related to military relocation. However, if it does not, the parents can petition the court to modify the order appropriately. Here are some things to consider:

  • Child custody agreements are usually subject to state, not federal laws.
  • State laws generally provide the basis and considerations to be made when a court determines whether to allow the relocation of a child.
  • Some states require service members to establish how a relocation would be in the best interests of a child before they will approve any such requests, and others might prohibit any relocation of a child without the presence of compelling circumstances.

In Texas, the Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) defends the rights of a non-custodial parent when the custodial parent wants to move their children out of the state, or over 100 miles from the current location. However, if the parents do not have a legal custody agreement in place, either parent will not be prohibited from moving out of state with the children.

3.    Know your legal rights

While nothing happens automatically if a parent is deployed, service members and their spouses have specific rights regarding child custody and visitation as it relates to deployment, military mobilization, and temporary military duty:

  • Under the Texas Family Code, members of the military can designate a conservator to act temporarily on their behalf while they are deployed. The designated person is usually a close family member who is given the same rights and access to the child as the parent does when they are home.
  • If the parents share custody and neither parent requests an order from the court, the non-custodial parent will automatically take custody of the children when the custodial parent is deployed.
  • If the deployed parent seeks a court order to appoint another person, the court will consider the children’s best interests when placing them with the non-custodial parent, the designee of the custodial parent, or an individual designated by the court. The court can limit or expand the rights of a nonparent in this role if it finds that the expansion or limitations are in the child’s best interest.
  • A deployed non-custodial deployed parent can also designate someone to act as a conservator on their behalf, and because a deployment can last over an extended period, the court might also allow additional visitation time for the parent.
  • Temporary orders are an option when deployment involves moving a significant distance from where the conservator resides, and the distance changes their ability to fulfill their rights and duties regarding the child. Once the parent returns from deployment the temporary custody order ends and the normal custody arrangement takes effect.

It is important to note that under the Servicemembers Relief Act (SCRA) an automatic stay will take effect to prevent one parent from permanently changing a custody agreement while the other parent is deployed. Under SCRA, the deployed parent will be notified regarding any child custody actions and the case will be put on hold for a specific period of time. To fully assert their rights, military parents should always consult with a qualified attorney regarding the best way to approach custody decisions and other arrangements before deployment.

All divorced parents, especially those serving in the military, face many challenging issues, including issues that affect the custody of children. Firm founder Mary Beth Harrell is an army wife and Army mom, so we know firsthand what kinds of challenges you may face. At Mary Beth Harrell Law Firm, we work hard to help people achieve the best possible outcome for their families. Contact us in Killeen or Copperas Cove, or call 254-680-4655  to schedule a personal consultation today. Proudly serving military families throughout Central Texas, including those in bell and Coryell Counties, Temple, and Belmont.