In many ways, military custody cases are the same as civilian custody cases -- and both are decided by state courts. When military parents deploy or move to a new duty station, however, custody orders may need altering to match the family's new situation. Depending on state laws, special rules may apply to the deployed parent's custody arrangements.
Assigning Custody Rights
Generally, parents are not permitted to give their custody rights to someone else, allowing another person to take time normally reserved for the parent. But some states, like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, allow parents to temporarily assign custody rights to a family member while they are deployed. Assignments can help a child keep a close relationship with the deployed parent through contact with that parent's family members, easing the transition when that parent returns. Assignment laws may require the deploying parent to ask the court for permission to make this assignment. Courts evaluate the assignment to ensure that it is in the child's best interests.
Temporary Orders Are Available
States generally allow courts to issue temporary custody orders while a military parent is deployed. This allows the court to find a placement that is in the child's best interests while the deployed parent is away without hurting the deployed parent's long-term custody arrangements. For example, if one parent becomes unfit to care for the couple's children while the other parent is deployed, a court could issue temporary custody orders placing the children with another family member. Similarly, if a custody dispute between parents is not resolved prior to one parent's deployment, the court can issue a temporary order addressing custody while the deployed parent is gone.
Returning from Deployment
When a parent returns from deployment, state laws determine what happens to custody arrangements that were put in place while he was gone. For example, the same Pennsylvania law that allows deploying parents to assign their rights to someone else provides that the custody order in place before the deploying parent left must go back into effect when he returns. If a court made temporary orders while a parent was deployed, the parents may have to go back to court to determine a permanent custody arrangement.
Long-Term Changes Based on Deployments
Many states, like California and Ohio, do not allow courts to make custody decisions based solely on a parent's military service. Courts in those states cannot make long-term custody changes, such as modifications of a previous custody order, based primarily on a parent's deployment or other aspects of military service. However, since courts make custody decisions based on the child's best interests, a court can consider such factors as the stability of the child's home and the closeness of his relationship with each parent. Thus, military service can influence custody arrangements, or changes in those arrangements, even if the court does not make its decision based on military service itself.