House Bill Focuses on Servicemember Child Custody Rights

The House of Representatives Armed Services Committee is currently championing a bill that would help to protect the rights of servicemembers in child custody battles. Servicemembers are already protected in certain ways when seeking a so-called military divorce.

The Servicemember Family Protection Act

The Servicemember Family Protection Act would prevent family court judges from basing custody decisions primarily on a servicemember's past or future deployments. It also would prevent courts from making changes to custody determinations while a parent is deployed overseas. The Act redefines deployment to include humanitarian operations or unaccompanied overseas tours. The Act is included in a larger defense spending bill.

Some incarnation of the Servicemember Family Protection Act has had bipartisan support in the House for a few years, but the legislation often gets tied up in the Senate Armed Services Committee. It has also traditionally lacked the support of the Defense Department, which has claimed that child support issues should be left to the states.

However, last year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates threw his support behind the Servicemember Family Protection Act, though it was too late to make a difference in the Senate. Now, the House Armed Services Committee is asking Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to endorse the bill.

How the Servicemember Family Protection Act Helps Parents

Under current law, deployed servicemembers temporarily lose full-time child custody while overseas. Sometimes, another parent takes advantage of the complex custody situation to make the temporary custody changes permanent. The Servicemember Family Protection Act would prevent courts from making these types of permanent changes to custody while a parent is deployed.

Bill sponsor Representative Mike Turner, R-Ohio, explains that the bill will protect servicemembers from being disqualified from primary custody. He believes that current law is unfair to servicemembers, who can be called to duty at any time to anywhere in the world. Their absence from home is therefore often beyond their control and ultimately dictated by the federal government.

Military deployments are tough on all family members, especially children. In all custody decisions, the best interest of the children involved should be the first priority, and adding the turmoil of a permanent custody change to the stress caused by a parent's deployment may not be in a child's best interest.

If you are facing deployment in the near future and are concerned about your child custody rights due to your deployment situation, please contact an experienced family law attorney to explore your legal options.