With thousands of service members returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, military families are once again being reunited. However, being at home could be short-lived, as new deployment orders can be issued at any time. This uncertainty can put service members at a significant disadvantage in the midst of a child custody dispute. Countless soldiers have lost primary custody or have had relocation petitions denied because of the specter of receiving deployment orders to serve anywhere in the world.
A new bill may change this. The Servicemember Family Protection Act is gaining support in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to a report by Military.com, the House Armed Forces Committee has asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to endorse the bill that would prohibit family court judges from using the possibility of deployment as a determining factor in making custody decisions. Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, supported the bill before stepping down last year.
Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) has introduced the bill in each legislative session since 2008. While it passed through the House each time, it has stalled in the Senate due to opposition from the Defense Department. Turner hopes to get Panetta’s support early in the session so that he can make his case to senators who may only follow the military’s lead. Turner explains that the bill does not provide any tangible advantage to service members, but it would eliminate a disadvantage that soldiers face in court.
California law requires family court judges to consider a number of factors in making custody decisions. This includes (but is not limited to) the nature of the child’s relationship with each parent, his or her primary caretaker, each parent’s ability to provide a stable living environment, and the willingness to support and promote the child’s relationship with the other parent. However, adverse custody rulings are continually made based on the likelihood of future deployments. This line of reasoning may ignore other required factors in determining what is in the child’s best interests.
In the meantime, service members faced with child custody disputes should ask an experienced family law attorney about their rights and options. A lawyer can also provide practical advice about how to handle sensitive situations that could lead to litigation.