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Drafting Parenting Plans for Military Families

When divorcing parents have minor children, courts enter orders outlining custody and visitation arrangements at the conclusion of divorce proceedings. In many states, this is called a Parenting Plan. Parenting plans also exists in a military divorce.

Typically, plans outline when children will reside with each parent and whether major decisions affecting the child will be made by one or both parents. The plan often contains specific provisions about how school vacation periods will be split and which parent will have the children on holidays, birthdays and special occasions.

Parenting plans should be designed to serve the child's best interest, provide a stable environment and build and maintain strong bonds between the child and each parent. For civilian parents, plans often take into account parental work schedules. For example, if the non-custodial parent gets Tuesdays and Wednesdays off work, visitation with the child will often be scheduled for those days rather than on the traditional weekend.

When one or both parents are serving in the military, plans must also recognize the unique demands such employment. Divorced parents living near each other might share physical custody equally, or the non-custodial parent can, at least, have regularly scheduled visitation. However, if the non-custodial military parent is deployed or transferred to a different state or country, regular visitation will not be practical.

Generally, when parents have shared or joint custody and one parent becomes unavailable due to deployment or transfer, the other parent will care for the child. However, if the military parent has sole custody, often that person's current spouse or another family member related to that parent will serve as the child's guardian until the military parent becomes available.

If the military parent is deployed to serve in a war zone, visitation will not be feasible. However, if the military parent is simply reassigned to serve on a base across the country or in a foreign country for several years, visitation can take place but will require a schedule that looks very different from typical plans that often provide for weekly or bi-weekly visits.

Suggested Provisions for Parenting Plans in a Military Divorce

It is difficult to plan for every possibility when military parents are involved. Even if the plan includes alternate provisions intended to take effect if the military parent becomes unavailable, those provisions may prove impractical based on specific circumstances. However, it is always wise for military parents to include provisions covering the most likely potential circumstances.

The Sevicemembers' Civil Relief Act (SCRA) prevents one parent from making permanent custody changes while the other parent is deployed. Provisions included in a parenting plan that take effect upon deployment or transfer will be considered temporary, and an absence due to military service will not serve as a basis to change the underlying custody order. Language might be included in the plan referencing the SCRA simply to reinforce a mutual agreement not to make any permanent custody changes.

The following suggestions pertain primarily to a military parent who is not the custodial or primary residential parent. Provisions should take into account the child's age, needs and school schedule.

General Language Needed in a Military Divorce Parenting Plan. At a minimum, a parenting plan should include language that both parents understand the nature of military duty and that if the military parent is forced to cancel parenting time due to military obligations, the parents will cooperate to reschedule lost time. Provisions should state that the service member shall give the other parent as much advance notice as possible about canceling and rescheduling time, and the non-military parent will not unreasonably deny rescheduled time.

Relocation. Alternate provisions might be included to take effect in the event of a long-distance transfer of the military parent. These might include splitting summers or alternating school vacations allowing the child to visit the military parent for extended periods. Include details about how transportation will be arranged, who will cover travel costs and whether military discounts or transportation can be used if available.

The military parent's leave time, breaks, or vacations could be given priority status for having visitation or for having the child reside with that parent, depending on logistics and school obligations. 

Deployment. Mobilization and overseas deployment of a military unit usually make physical visitation impossible, and regular communication can become impractical. Deployments often run from 6-12 months.

The plan should specify how the deployed parent will receive updates on matters involving the children and the frequency of such reports. Provisions allowing frequent and extended communication via phone and video services might be included. The plan could include provisions for substitute visitation allowing a grandparent or other relative to have visitation during the times normally reserved for the military parent.

If parents share the authority for making major decisions regarding a child, language should be included outlining how these decisions will be made while the military parent is deployed. These decisions usually involve education, religious activity and major healthcare issues.

The plan should outline what happens when the military parent returns from deployment. At a minimum, the plan should state that the normal visitation schedule will resume. A short transition period might be included allowing the child to readjust to a regular schedule.

In addition to a court-approved parenting plan, military parents with children under the age of 19 usually need to prepare a family care plan, which is a separate document required by each branch of the military. The plan does not require court approval.

Family care plans include very detailed information about how children will be cared for if the military member becomes unavailable due to training, temporary duty or deployment. The plan is usually kept on file by a commanding officer. The amount and type of information required differ depending on the branch of service.

Parenting is a challenging task for divorced parents under normal circumstances. For a military parent who can be transferred or deployed with little notice, the challenges often become even greater. Having a flexible parenting plan in place, complemented with a detailed family care plan, can help to provide stability and reduce stress for both parents and children. If you have questions about a military divorce, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at (201) 845-7400.

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