Child hands drawing on paper

Child Custody Considerations for Members of the Military

Many service members have custody of, or visitation rights with, children whose other parent is not the service member's current spouse. Absences due to military service can undermine and disrupt existing arrangements, creating stress on parents and children. Military service can significantly influence child custody issues. Learn what processes and protections are available to help you with the impact of deployments and moves on your current arrangements. Get information about:

  • Family care plans
  • Custody issues related to relocation
  • Your rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act
  • Individual state laws related to military child custody
  • Installation legal assistance

Here are some things to consider when dealing with child custody issues.

Family care plan

Before you deploy or relocate, prepare a family care plan that describes who will provide care for your children financially, medically and logistically if you are away due to military duty. Read "How to Create a Family Care Plan for Caregivers" to learn more about setting up a plan for your children.

Child custody issues related to relocation

If your custodial agreement is already in place, and does not contain a provision related to military relocation, you can work with the court and your child's other parent to modify the order appropriately. Keep these things in mind:

  • Arrangements are generally subject to individual state laws, not federal laws.
  • State custody laws provide the basis for a court's determination when you request permission to relocate with your child.
  • Some states may require you to show how a move will benefit the child before approving the request to move and retain custody.
  • Other states may prohibit any relocation without compelling circumstances.

Your rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects your legal rights when you're called to active duty. The act applies to:

  • Active-duty members of the regular force
  • Members of the National Guard when serving in an active-duty status under federal orders
  • Members of the reserve called to active duty
  • Members of the Coast Guard serving on active duty in support of the armed forces

Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, you can:

  • Obtain a stay or postponement of court or administrative proceedings if your military service materially affects your ability to proceed in the case
  • Get an automatic stay of 90 days in the proceedings when you request this protection in writing

Any additional delay beyond the 90-day stay is given at the discretion of the judge, magistrate or hearing officer.

This protection does not apply to any criminal court or criminal administrative proceedings. If your spouse attempts to change the child custody status while you are deployed, you can invoke your rights under the SCRA to postpone the hearing.

Individual state laws related to military child custody

Through the USA4 Military Families Initiative, the Department of Defense partners with states to educate policymakers, not-for-profit associations, concerned business interests and others about the needs of military members and their families. One issue currently addressed by the initiative ensures deployment separation does not determine child custody decisions.

Currently, all 50 states have at least one meaningful provision that protects the rights of service members in custody cases. The Department of Defense tracks four protections and two procedural forms of assistance for service members. All 50 states have at least one of the three protections, which are interrelated. Additionally, there was federal legislation passed covering the four protections. Find more information about the initiative on the USA4 Military Families website.

Installation legal assistance offices

For assistance on family and domestic relations, including child custody, contact your installation's legal assistance office using MilitaryINSTALLATIONS or find help through the Armed Forces Legal Assistance Legal Services Locator.