Return From Military Service and Reconsideration of Custody Orders

Laws of 2009, Ch 473, effective November 15, 2009, amended the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law to provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a ‘substantial change in circumstance’ for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order. The amendment changes the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty be deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 1 amended Domestic Relations Law § 75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody
orders) to provide unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law § 75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial
change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 2 amended Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 to add a new paragraph (a-2) to read as follows:
(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.
(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.
(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.
(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 3 amended Family Court Act § 651 to add a new subdivision (f) which reads exactly the same as Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 (a-2).

On November 15, 2009, amendments to the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law became effective that provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a “substantial change in circumstance” for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order.  The amendments change the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty are deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.

Specifically, Domestic Relations Law §75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders) provides that unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law §75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances.  Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

Domestic Relations Law §240(1), was amended to add a new paragraph (a-2) as follows:

(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.

(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.

(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.

(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.

The Family Court Act § 651 was amended to add a new subdivision (f) which contains identical language as Domestic Relations Law §240(1) (a-2).

If you are in the military service, the amendments provide some degree of comfort that any changes to the preexisting custody arrangements as a result of being called to the active duty can be reevaluated.  At the same time, in order to do so, the service person will be required to go to court and is likely to require assistance of a family law lawyer.

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