Custody Disputes Involving Deployed Militarypersons

An opinion dated November 18, 2009 (not yet released for publication) by a prominent member of Maryland’s highest court, Judge Murphy, is intended to be instructive to Maryland Custody Attorneys and members of military families impacted by overseas deployment.

There are many such families located in Howard County, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County and Harford County because of their proximity to military bases.

When preparing for deployment, often a service member with custody places a child with family members. While the servicemember is absent on active duty, the other parent seeks custody of the child. If custody is awarded, the deployed parent may face legal obstacles in regaining custody upon his or her return.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act can slow down or delay lawsuits. However, in situations involving custody, that is not allowed.

Judge Murphy made two major points. First he spelled out the rights of deployed service members under the Family Law Article. As a former U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer and sixteen year member of the Maryland House of Delegates, I have explained this legislation and expressed my appreciation for recent action to strengthen these rights in a prior posting.

The second point made by Judge Murphy is that deployed members are limited in the use they can make of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. In other situations this federal legislation can be raised to slow down or delay lawsuits. However, in situations involving custody, that is not going to be allowed. Murphy explains his viewpoint by quoting a Tennessee opinion that observed: “[the child’s} life goes on”. In other words the federal law is designed to protect a servicemember but cannot be used to gain an advantage in a dispute that impacts a child’s life such as custody.

In the case reviewed by Judge Murphy, the father had been denied visitation by mother’s parents while she was overseas. Father gained physical possession of the child and the court left that situation undisturbed until mother returned from overseas. It was also noted that grandparents lacked standing to pursue custody of the child. This is also a topic which I have previously posted on this site.