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Military deployments shouldn't affect custody, panel says

Members of the U.S. Armed Forces face a few more complications when it comes to child custody decisions. The hardest thing for them and for the courts to figure out is how to deal with deployments to another state or another country. The military parent has no choice but to follow orders and follow them on short notice, and that can mean precious little time to modify a custody agreement, revise visitation schedules and have everything approved by the court.

We have discussed before that state law governs family law matters; it's the same for Illinois civilians and service members. A bill in Congress, though, would change that. The federal government would have some say in custody matters for active duty servicemen and servicewomen.

According to one of its House sponsors, the bill would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by adding safeguards in active duty child custody cases. The new language would not give federal courts jurisdiction over child custody matters, but it would provide baseline protections for military parents.

The sponsor explained that family law courts tend to count absences against a parent in a custody dispute, and the change in law would rectify that. Under the new law, the court would not be able to count deployment absences against the military parent. The best interest of the child will still be the standard; the law would just make one factor out of bounds in the court's consideration.

The Uniform Law Commission opposes Congressional action -- not because the commission disagrees with the principles, but because the commission believes that family law belongs with the states. Adding a federal law would merely add confusion, according to a member of the organization.

The commission writes model laws and works with state legislatures to adopt them. The Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act recently received the organization's final approval; the commission expects to take it to the states in 2013.

For the moment, the outlook is grim for the federal bill. The House has passed the bill seven years in a row only to see it go nowhere in the Senate. And that's just fine with the commission.

Source: USA Today, "Panel: Improve child custody rules for military," Kristin M. Hall, July 18, 2012

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