Custody and Visitation Arrangements if an Ex-Spouse is Relocated Due to the Military

What Happens to Custody and Visitation Arrangements if an Ex-Spouse is Relocated Due to the Military? Parents who are divorced work hard to develop workable visitation arrangements prior to their marriage dissolving. The court’s stance has always been what is in the best interest of the child or children of the marriage. Once a divorce is finalized, custody and visitation schedules are put in place to avoid disrupting the child’s life as much as possible.

Like other events, a military deployment can upend the best parenting plans. Joint custody is not uncommon in California, so when one spouse must move across the country, or even out of the country to serve, it often means the parents will have to work out a new plan for both parenting and visitation.

Temporary Modifications Are Possible For Military Families

Federal laws laid out in Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCFA) as well as California statutes are designed to protect the interests of those who serve in the military. This also applies to child custody arrangements which a parent may have with a former spouse.

Since no two arrangements for child custody and visitation are identical, it is important that parents understand the potential issues surrounding relocation when in the military:

  • Parent with sole physical custody relocating — when a military member is reassigned and has sole physical custody, the current non-custodial parent still has the right to visit their child. In many cases, the parents can work out an arrangement between themselves and present a modified plan to the court for the duration of the deployment.
  • Parents with joint physical custody — when the parents are sharing physical custody, it may be a valid option to consider a temporary modification of custody. Thankfully, California Cal.Fam.Code § 3047(b)(1) has specific guidelines for these types of temporary orders.
  • Parent without physical custody being deployed — when the custodial parent is not being relocated, it will be necessary to discuss how visitations between the child and non-custodial parent will be worked out. Again, these changes can be considered temporary.

Modifications of custody arrangements or visitation arrangements should always be completed before the military parent leaves their current station. The sooner the parents are in contact with an attorney who understands the military rules pertaining to deployments and reassignments, the easier it will be to get through the process.

When Parents Disagree on Visitation During Deployment

One of the challenges which will be faced is what happens when the parents cannot come to an agreement regarding visitation. Parents will be asked to participate in mediation to give each of them an opportunity to be heard and to make their position clear. Should mediation fail, however, the court will step in and the judge will make a determination about how these visits should be handled, including the financial aspects of getting the child to the deployed parent’s duty station.

When keeping the best interests of the child in mind, parents should consider the following:

  • Current schooling status — disrupting a child during the school year could have an adverse effect on their education and could potentially set them back. This should be a consideration of both parents as well as the court.
  • Length of deployment — if the deployment is short-term, the parents may opt to grant temporary full custody to the non-deploying parent. Per the statutes set down in California, these temporary changes would be revisited once the parent returns home.
  • Distance for visits — when determining how visitation modifications will be handled, the distance between the physical locations will have to be considered. This will also mean evaluating the child’s safety while traveling, the impact on the child’s relationship with other family members, and their current school break situations.

Parents who are accustomed to working together to make sure their child has access to both parents may already be working on how to deal with parenting time and summer vacation modifications so the challenges they face may be less than those who have a more contentious relationship.

Custody and Visitation Hearings and Deployments

Parents have a right to build a case for a parenting time modification in California which typically involves a court hearing. If the modification request comes while a parent is deployed, they may feel they are at a disadvantage. However, California law, as well as federal law, protects the interests of military members who may be involved in a dispute involving parenting time or custody.

Should it become necessary, hearings may be held without both parties physically in the building. In an ideal situation, resolutions for modifications of custody and visitation due to deployment or relocation would be reached prior to the change. When the parents can reach an agreement in a reasonable period of time, a family law attorney can help work out a suitable court date prior to the relocation or deployment.

When Relocation of a Duty Station is Long-Term

There may be more issues to consider if a duty station change is going to be for a long period of time, 12 months or more. When the servicemember has sole physical custody of a child, they will be required to get permission for the child to be relocated out of state. This could cause problems with the non-custodial parent, so the sooner plans are made, often the better.

Permanent changes will require the parents to revisit their existing parenting plans and work out arrangements that are not only suitable for the parents, but more importantly that are workable for their children. Since the original parenting plans were incorporated into the final divorce documents, there are court orders in place which protect the child and both parents, which means no changes can be made without court approval.

Contact a California Child Custody and Visitation Attorney

Change is never easy. If an original custody and visitation plan did not take into account the possibility of a deployment or change of duty station, parents need to work with a highly trained family law attorney to help navigate these challenging situations. Finding a workable solution to ensure the well-being of the child should be the basis for the discussions which will be required. 

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