Serving in the military can be stressful and emotionally taxing for family members whose loved one is deployed.
Considering that a great many service members are single parents, deployment can be particularly taxing when child custody and visitation rights and disputes leave the service member feeling as though a choice must be made between family and country.
California lawmakers sought to alleviate some of the stressors related to support and custody 11 years ago this month in the form of Senate Bill 1082. This bill closed a loophole in federal family law that made national guardsmen and reservists who are parents vulnerable to a variety of family law-related problems.
Back then, the California Alliance for Families and Children played a leading role in educating policy makers and the legal community by sharing stories of service men and women who had been impacted, and they showed data that demonstrated the serious nature of the legal problems that faced military personnel in the family courts.
Today, Senate Bill 1082 helps military members avoid many of those problems. The bill addresses child support modifications that affect reservists and National Guard members who often must leave their higher paying civilian jobs when put on active duty. The bill includes an urgency clause, which allows it to take effect immediately upon enactment. The bill also provides the following, according to a CAFC press release from 2005:
- That complications resulting from a service member’s relocation, activation and deployment shall not, by themselves, be sufficient to justify modifying existing custody or visitation orders.
- A simplified process of support order modification using a form that the California Judicial Counsel developed for activated reservists and guard members who are affected.
- That courts give priority to mobilized military members. If not possible, the new law guarantees a court stay, pending the service member’s return from active duty and deployment.
- That a member has 90 days to address family law matters upon their return from active duty.
- Relief from interest and penalties on any arrears of child support if they resulted from being activated or deployed. In cases where the support payments are to repay Cal Works, arrears directly caused by activation and deployment may be forgiven.
- That the Department of Child Support Services gives priority to child support cases handled by the department.
The need for state bills similar to this throughout the country came to light in 2001 when military personnel were deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It is estimated that about 142,000 members of the Armed Forces are single custodians of minor children, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.
Temporary duty assignments, mobilization, and deployments to areas where dependents are unable to accompany them require service members to have contingency plans in place to provide for the care and well-being of their dependents, including temporary custody arrangements in some cases.
“In some instances, custody battles have ensued when the military parent leaves for duty and the other parent decides to file for temporary or permanent custody of the child in the absence of the service member,” the report stated. “Some service members involved in such child custody cases have expressed concern that family courts in some states are using their military service against them in determining custodial arrangements.”
There have been efforts in the past to pass federal legislation to establish a national standard for litigating child custody cases in which the custodial parent is in the military, the report stated.
“The problem with this, and I believe the reason why it continues to fail each year, is that while it a federal responsibility to protect the rights of those who serve in the Armed Forces, child custody issues are handled by the states,” says John Griffith, a San Diego family lawyer who also is a U.S. Army veteran.
The American Bar Association opposes federal child custody legislation. Its stance is that child custody is the responsibility of the states, and by 2013 when the report was released, about 40 states already had passed such legislation.
“We have a great deal of experience in representing members of the military in family law cases,” says Griffith, a certified family law specialist.
Please call our office for a free consultation if you are scheduled to deploy and you need to resolve a child custody issue before you leave. We offer a free consultation, as well as a special rate for clients who serve in the military.