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Custody Rights for Service Members: Understanding Military Parenting Plans

Updated on March 22, 2012

Child custody can be complicated in a standard divorce, but when one or both of you serves in the military, those unique obligations can make negotiations a little more complex.

There is a growing recognition that child custody for those parents in the military service requires everyone involved to understand potential problems and work together for solutions.

A military parenting plan may be the right tool to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding custody and visitations during more normal times as well as if you are called away to serve your country.

Military service can mean long periods away from your children where you are unable to care for them or even make visitations.
Military service can mean long periods away from your children where you are unable to care for them or even make visitations. | Source

Past Problems

In the past, child custody was generally awarded to the children’s mother and fathers were given limited visitation rights. Today’s child custody hearings result in a variety of arrangements, from joint custody to more and more fathers receiving custody.

In addition, more women are joining the ranks of military service, making child custody issues for modern military parents a jumble of unique cases.

When a military parent was deployed, transferred temporarily or otherwise forced to be apart from his or her children, custody was usually transferred to the other parent.

This custody was supposed to be temporary, but many military parents would return home to find that their child custody status had been altered.

In some cases, permanent custody was awarded to the other parent, while in other cases, the deployment was being counted against the military parent’s total parenting time. Still other cases saw service members spending years and thousands of dollars to regain the custody arrangements they enjoyed before being deployed.

Today's Solutions

Several high-profile court cases in the 2000s brought the problems into the mainstream, when laws were enacted on the state and federal level that protected military parents from life-changing child custody rulings while they were absent for military duties.

Advocates on behalf of military personnel continue to urge the passing of comprehensive state and federal laws that protect military personnel from permanently losing custody because of their military service.

The Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act of 2003 was designed to expand the civil rights of military personnel.

Several states also took action, such as California, Michigan and Kentucky. Other states also enacted similar laws requiring temporary parenting plans to revert to the original custody agreement a week or two after the deployment ends.

As of 2012, lawmakers are still seeking to clarify the issues surrounding child custody for service members, on the state and federal level.

Create a basic parenting plan for when you are nearby, then create a temporary parenting plan that takes effect only while you are away.
Create a basic parenting plan for when you are nearby, then create a temporary parenting plan that takes effect only while you are away. | Source

Be Prepared

Service members must prepare a family care plan before they are deployed to outline the care and custody of family members. This can include designating custody or guardianship of children.

Generally, the children’s other parent receives the custodianship while the military parent is deployed. The newest laws prevent that parent from making any permanent arrangements while you are deployed.

Before you get deployed, you and the other parent can prepare a temporary military custody schedule to present at a hearing to temporarily transfer custody to the civilian parent. This should only last for as long as you are deployed.

Use software such as Custody X Change to create a military parenting plan you can print out and submit during your custody hearing.

When you return home, your prior custody agreement should take effect and your children must be returned to you within a reasonable time, generally 10 days. While there are still possible court actions that can result in sorting out custody issues, military parents have more protections than ever when it comes to keeping custody rights.


When awarding custody for any divorce—for both civilian and military parents—the family court wants to promote the best interests of the children. Judges want to see both parents eager to provide their children with all the physical and emotional care and protection possible.

Preventing one parent from exercising these rights simply because of military service is becoming less of a problem thanks to these protective laws and a growing understanding of the rights and responsibilities of military parents.

Over the past decade or so, military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought the plight of military parents and child custody into the open. Because these conflicts have also see record numbers of female military personnel, the solutions have also forced people to replace old-fashioned child custody assumptions with modern, real-world solutions.


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