The United States House of Representatives recently passed, by an overwhelming margin, a measure designed to protect deployed military service members involved in child custody disputes. H.R. 4201, the Servicemember Family Protection Act, was introduced by Representative Mike Turner of Ohio and passed the House after a vote of 390-2. The legislation, which was also reportedly passed as part of the 2013 defense authorization bill, will now move on to the U.S. Senate.
Interestingly, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, military family advocates, and legal experts have expressed opposition to the measure. The American Bar Association, National Military Family Association, and family law attorneys throughout the nation believe the proposed legislation would likely increase legal costs for military families involved in custody disputes because the bill as written creates a right to federal court review. Opponents of the law argue federal review may be detrimental to the children of parents in the military because federal courts may favor deployed service members and fail to consider the best interests of the child when custody is in dispute. Additionally, child custody cases could be heard by federal judges with little or no family law experience.
Representative Turner, who has reportedly supported a military child custody law for the past seven years, stated the proposed legislation is simple. Turner says the proposed law merely states that deployment status may not be used as a factor in child custody awards. He doesn’t believe the law would provide a service member with an undue advantage nor would it have an effect on other aspects of a child custody dispute. Turner said the law would merely remove a disadvantage currently in existence for deployed parents.
Two years ago, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) found that military deployments do not affect a parent’s child custody rights. The study also found no reported cases that would suggest parents in the military lost custody based solely on their deployment status.
Turner’s quest to pass the legislation has reportedly inspired several states to clarify or modify existing child custody laws related to deployed service members. Currently, 40 states have laws that do not allow military deployment to be used as the decisive factor in awarding child custody. Next month, a model Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act will be published by the nation’s Uniform Law Commission. Although not required, every state will be invited to adopt the language of the model act. Additionally, the DoD has ordered all service members to prepare a pre-deployment Family Care Plan to address child custody issues.
In October 2008, Florida abolished custodial designations for parents. Instead, child custody in the state is now referred to as time-sharing. A Florida time-sharing schedule establishes which parent a child spends not only holidays with, but also other times such as weekdays, overnights, and school breaks. If parents cannot agree on a time-sharing schedule, the family court will create a schedule that takes into account a variety of factors such as the moral fitness of each parent, any evidence of abuse or neglect, and other statutory factors. A knowledgeable Florida child custody attorney can explain the factors to you in more detail.