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Military Child Visitation: What You Need to Know

Military parents face many unique complications and challenges, beyond those of non-military families. One matter which requires special attention is child visitation, which can be disrupted by transfers to other states or deployments overseas. This article contains some important information for military parents who need to create or revise visitation plans.

Child Visitation for Military Parents: The Basics

Basic visitation arrangements for military parents are similar to child visitation arrangements for other parents. Just like non-military parents, provisions for visitation are generally included in the custody agreement, which should be in writing and approved by a family court judge. They are governed by state law, so it’s important for any parent who needs to create a custody or visitation agreement to speak with a qualified local family law attorney.

When both parents are in the same local area, child visitation may be either structured or unstructured. An unstructured child visitation arrangement allows the parents to work out a flexible visitation schedule which generally provides for reasonable contact with both parents. It may also designate the non-custodial parent as the "sitter of first choice," which means that the custodial parents will first call the other parent to watch the children instead of a babysitter. Unstructured visitation agreements work best when the parents live close to each other and communicate well.

Structured visitation agreements, on the other hand, specify times during which the non-custodial parent may visit her child, as well as provisions for missed visitation appointments, change of schedules, transportation costs, pick up and drop off locations, and any other logistical details. These types of agreements are best for parents who are unable communicate reasonably with one another.

Visitation While Serving in Another State

When the military parent is transferred to a faraway state, many weekly visitation appointments may not be possible. However, longer visitation agreements, such as traveling to the non-custodial parent for Christmas or over summer vacation, may still be possible if the military parent is not likely to move again during these times. The custody agreement can specify who will pay for transportation costs, as well as which parent is responsible for bringing the child to and from airports or train stations.

Parents who are separated by long distances may also consider virtual visitation, or visitation through phone calls, emails, or online video chat programs. Virtual visitation is a particularly good option for military parents who are deployed overseas. Parents who enjoy a good relationship can decide on appropriate calling times on their own, otherwise, parents include particular calling times in the custody agreement. The custodial parent must ensure that the child is available to speak and that the phone lines are clear during virtual visitation hours.

Visitation During Deployments Overseas

Visitation plans can also accommodate situations where the military parent is deployed overseas (when in-person or virtual visitation is not possible). The options available to these parents vary by state, but can include:

  • Assigning Visitation Hours to a Close Relative: If the military parent's siblings or parents already have a close relationship with the child, and it is in the best interests of the child, judges in some states will allow military parents to assign their visitation hours to the child's aunts, uncles, or grandparents. However, these assigned hours cannot be used to fulfill any visitation rights granted to grandparents in addition to the military parent's visitation.
  • Scheduling Make-up Hours Before or After Deployment: If the parents' and child's schedules can accommodate additional visiting hours, some judges may reschedule the military parent's visiting hours for times when the parent is closer to home.

Creating and Modifying the Custody Agreement

Most states allow a great deal of flexibility when creating custody and visitation agreements. Military parents can take advantage of this flexibility to insert provisions for deployment when the custody agreement is created. Determining what to do in case of deployment before the orders are issued can save time and stress when the military parent is deployed. Military parents should also take care that the visitation arrangements do not conflict with their family care plans, which outline who has custody of the child in case of sudden deployment.

Just like non-military parents, military parents can usually modify their child custody and visitation arrangements to reflect changes in circumstances. Parents whose relationships improve may wish to change from structured to unstructured visitation, or if the military parent is transferred close to the custodial parent, the custody agreement may be altered to give the military parent more time with the child. However, since modifying the child custody agreement typically requires a court order, parents generally should not simply change the custody arrangements based on a verbal agreement.

If you're facing issues related to military child visitation, you should consult with a lawyer who specializes in military law as soon as possible.

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