How Does Custody Work if One Parent Is in the Military?

Army soldier with a child

Navigating child custody arrangements can be a complex process, and the challenges can intensify when one parent serves in the military. The unpredictability associated with military assignments, whether overseas or stateside, adds another layer of complexity to sharing parental responsibilities.

It’s essential for military parents to familiarize themselves with their legal rights and options to ensure the well-being of their children. Fortunately, there are legal provisions specifically designed to protect the child custody rights of service members. Continue reading to learn more about how custody works when one parent is part of the military force.

Will I Lose Custody If I Join the Military?

If you have custody of your child, you might be apprehensive about joining the military for fear of losing child custody. In general, the fact you’re in military service can’t be utilized as a valid reason to deny you child custody. On the other hand, the extent to which your active duty service affects court proceedings depends on state laws.

Impact on Custody: How Does Custody Work If One Parent Is in the Military?

Military families, regardless of whether they’re divorced, relocate a lot because of the military member’s active duty responsibilities. Suppose the judge provides the military parent primary or sole custody. In that case, the relocation may require particular arrangements like allowing the child to travel to the other parent during summer or granting court permission before the relocation.

Moreover, some state laws may demand that the civilian parent show how the move may benefit the child before approval. However, some places may prohibit this move without valid and compelling reasons. Military service members, on the hand, are given specific rights for relocation needs primarily because of the job.

Generally speaking, when one parent is a service member, the other parent is left with the child full-time if the military parent is deployed. If parents share joint custody of their kid and the military parent leaves home because of military duties, the custody agreement schedule is paused. The child will then stay with the civilian parent in the meantime.

Regardless of the custody agreement, frequent relocations and long deployments can affect the family’s relationship. Both the deployed parent and the child often encounter emotional challenges during long separations.

Can a Military Father or Mother Get Full Custody?

As discussed, yes, a military parent can get full custody of his or her children. A service member is just like any other parent with rights. The main difference is their likelihood of being deployed overseas and spending extensive periods away from home.

However, most courts grant joint custody as this arrangement provides the child with opportunities to grow up with both parents. But let’s say you have full child custody status. Suppose you’re a parent who has to go through military relocation and can’t bring your child. In that case, exploring temporary custody arrangements with extended family members or close friends would be best.

Regardless of whether you have primary or joint custody, you should maintain open communication with your child, especially during deployment.

When Both Parents Are Serving: Custody Arrangements for Military Couples

When both parents are military members, the process can be trickier. There’s a risk that both parents might get deployed simultaneously, leaving the child without seeing both parents for a long time.

If only one parent is deployed, the child will stay with the other parent full-time. However, if both military parents are deployed simultaneously, they must leave the child with a trusted guardian. This can be extended family members like a grandparent, aunts, uncles, or close friends.

Who Gets Child Custody in a Military Divorce?

In most cases, child custody arrangements result in joint physical custody. However, courts won’t hesitate to grant a parent sole custody if there’s a valid reason to avoid joint custody, like addiction problems or abandonment issues.

The same rules apply to military parents. An individual in the military may be granted full custody if the evidence supports that this arrangement would be in the child’s best interests.

How the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Affects Custody Proceedings

Military custody protection laws

One of the most potent military custody protection laws is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The SCRA protects your legal rights as a parent when your military duty requires you to get deployed, permanent change of station (PCS), or serve on active duty.

According to this law, you can obtain a stay or postponement of court or administrative proceedings if your military duty affects your ability to appear in court proceedings. If the civilian parent attempts to change custody status when you’re deployed, you can invoke your SCRA rights to postpone the hearing.

Moreover, some states are considering model rules in handling disputes involving actively serving military men and women. One of these model rules’ goals is to establish consistency. While a court may consider military service in one manner, another reaches an entirely different conclusion. These model rules also ensure that military parents are not penalized because of their long deployment orders for the ‘best interests’ of the child. To learn more about the SCRA and its impact on parents’ custody and visitation, explore the SCRACVS website further.

Altering Custody Agreements

If your custody agreement doesn’t cover your military-ordered relocation, you can modify the deal with the court and the non-military parent. However, you should provide compelling reasons why the move is necessary and how it would benefit the child. Sometimes, frequent relocations and a military parent’s deployment orders may force them to give up custody temporarily. In this case, you should seek legal help from an attorney specializing in family law to safeguard your rights as a parent.

About Military Family Care Plans

If you’re a divorced military parent, you’ll have a court-ordered parenting plan. However, your parenting plan may not address what happens when you’re deployed. This is why you need a military family care plan.

Military family care plans detail what happens to a child when the military parent is deployed. This plan should be as detailed as possible. In general, this plan contains the following:

  • Name and contact details of the child and parent
  • Caregivers and their contact information
  • Information about the child’s other parent
  • Information about financial child support during your absence
  • Details on who will take over child care if the military parent passes away

Other Mediation and Legal Solutions

Regarding child custody, it would be best if mediation is involved in custody disputes between military and non-military parents. Military families undergoing a divorce can confer with judge advocates (JAGs) to help them understand the legal implications of their divorce. While JAGs can’t represent you through the divorce process in court proceedings, they may refer you to civilian lawyers. You may visit the Installation Program Directory to find a JAG officer near you.

Seeking Professional Legal Advice as a Military Parent

wooden gavel

Navigating through child custody laws is never easy. Hence, you should confer with a lawyer specializing in family law to understand your rights fully and protect your family’s best interests. Ideally, you should seek assistance from someone with experience in military custody cases.

Moreover, you should keep tabs on the Uniform Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act. So far, ten states have enacted this law. This law protects deployed parents in divorce matters. It states that the deployment will not change the military parent’s residence for purposes of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA is a universal state law that covers jurisdiction in child custody cases. This law covers only where the case should be decided, not how.

You should ask for references if you’re a military service member undergoing divorce and child custody disputes. There may be military families in your network that know competent lawyers that can help you. You should also schedule a consultation to determine if the lawyer you’re eyeing is the perfect fit for you.


Soldier having fun with his son at home

As a servicemember parent, you encounter many challenges, including military relocation and what it means to your child. Thus, you should understand the law to protect your rights as a parent and for the benefit of your children.

Communication is key, and you can navigate through the setbacks with assistance. At the end of the day, you should prioritize your child and handle the situation with empathy. Please explore our website further to understand military life better.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens to a child if both parents are in the military?

This will depend if the parents are deployed or not. If one is deployed, the other parent would have temporary full custody of the child. The child will be left with a trusted guardian if they’re both deployed.

Does the military take single parents?

The Department of Defense doesn’t usually allow single parents to enlist in the military if they have custody of kids under 18. However, you may try to apply for a waiver, but approval for this is rare.

What happens to single parents in the military?

A single parent can join the military only if the child is in the custody of another parent or adult. The kid should be taken care of in case the parent gets deployed.

Attorney Roy Kaufmann serves as the Director of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Centralized Verification Service, located in Washington, D.C. As a recognized authority on the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, Mr. Kaufmann has published hundreds of articles and hosted many webinars. His teachings help law firms and businesses to remain compliant with the SCRA rules and regulations so as to avoid costly fines.