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Custody Orders Involving Military Servicemembers

Military families face challenges that civilian-only families do not, and navigating family law matters is especially difficult when servicemembers are involved. How do North Carolina courts determine child custody when deployment is a possibility? It depends heavily on the individual circumstances, but here is a brief overview of relevant guidelines.

Custody Decisions for Military Families

To protect members of the military, the federal Servicemembers Relief Act[1] lays out numerous safeguards for members of the armed forces. In the context of child custody cases, the Act states that temporary custody orders based on deployment must expire when the deployment has concluded[2]. It also includes terms involving the overall consideration of deployment when deciding on a child’s best interests. Specifically, the Act prohibits deployment or the possibility of future deployment from being the sole factor in custody determinations[3].

North Carolina state legislation also provides similar protections to servicemembers. Courts cannot use past or possible future deployments as the only basis for deciding a child’s best interests under state law[4]. However, courts are allowed to take any significant impact into consideration when ruling on custody cases involving deployment[5].

Munoz v. Munoz

The case of Munoz v. Munoz[6] out of Cumberland County involved a servicemember and their appeal of a permanent custody order. The parents in this case were both granted joint legal custody, but the father was granted primary physical custody, with the mother, a servicemember, receiving secondary physical custody. The father was also granted permission to relocate to California with the parties’ child.

When the original order was entered, the mom was expecting to be deployed for nine months. However, a change in her deployment timeline motivated her to file a motion to review. The court ordered the parents to keep the child in North Carolina until the mother deployed. The mother also filed a motion to set aside the temporary order, but the dad had already moved to California. The court’s decision was to enter a permanent order for primary physical custody to be awarded to the dad.

The mom’s appeal was based on her argument that the lower court used her military obligations in their decision which was an abuse of the court’s discretion. However, the appellate court’s ruling affirmed the lower court’s decision, meaning they agreed with the trial court’s decision to grant primary physical custody to the father.

Their decision was based upon the belief that the lower court’s primary concern was the welfare and best interests of the child. Additionally, the appellate court stated that deployment could be a factor in custody order rulings as long as the deployment was not the sole factor in the decision.

If you’re facing a custody matter involving a military servicemember or deployment obligations, speaking with a qualified Greensboro divorce lawyer can provide clarity and guidance. Having an experienced advocate on your side during this process makes a significant difference, so call Woodruff Family Law Group to schedule a consultation.

[1] Servicemembers Relief Act.
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] North Carolina General Statute. § 50-13.2. Who entitled to custody; terms of custody; visitation rights of grandparents; taking child out of State; consideration of parent’s military service.
[6] Munoz v. Munoz, 278 N.C. App. 647, 864 S.E.2d 364.