COVID-19 Complicating Military Divorce, Child Custody Issues

For men and fathers in the military, divorce and child custody issues can become complicated by service time obligations, forcing them to miss meetings and hearings outside of their control.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters, as members of the military have had to quarantine for a period of time before their release into civilian life, causing further physical and emotional distance between themselves and their children.

Cordell & Cordell’s Virtual Town Hall on COVID-19 and divorce highlighted these complex military family law issues and provided tips and strategies for those facing these challenges.

The complexities of military law

The Virtual Town Hall was led by Cordell & Cordell CEO, Managing/Executive Partner Scott Trout and a panel of attorneys from across the United States. They described some of the complications that members of armed forces face when dealing with divorce, child custody, child support, and alimony situations, including state-specific regulations and knowledge of military law.

“They [members of the military] have a little bit of a different situation,” Cordell & Cordell California Senior Litigation Attorney Cassandra Lelek said. “In the state of California, we don’t hold deployments against service members. We have so many bases, between the Navy and Marine bases, that the trick for them is to find someone that knows military law.

“Sometimes, we have to remind the judges that there are statutes and case law, which specifically show that deployments cannot be used against a service member to say ‘Well, you weren’t around.’

During deployment, active members of the military are forced to spend time away from their children, based on their government orders. Heading into family court, many opposing parties may look to use those orders against them.

“That happens a lot, where the other party says ‘You’re just an absentee father, because you’re on deployment,’” Ms. Lelek said. “Well, the case law says that that’s not the case. You’re not an absentee father. You’re doing your duty for your country.”

Dividing assets as a servicemember

Part of the challenge surrounding military divorce involves the division of assets, and with military pension, retirement, and thrift savings plan (TSP) being so important, it is critical that members of the military going through a divorce seek out an attorney, who understands the complexities associated with dividing these particular assets.

“There’s a difference between military retirement, military pension, and military TSP,” Ms. Lelek said. “There’s also a situation, where instead of taking your pension, you take disability pension. There’s a lot of tweaks that you have to know, and it’s really important to not only know what each of these issues mean, but also what they mean for this particular service member.”

Training and childcare

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the military are having longer training days as a result. This has resulted in issues involving school and childcare for their children that conflicts with their duty.

“With the longer training days and school being out, many are asking ‘What are we going to with our children? How are we going to continue their education and make sure they are well-taken care of?’” attorney Charles Hatley said. “Right now at the CDC, the Center for the Development of Children, essential personnel are receiving priority, so if you talk to your commander, there are outlets for the assistance that you need.”

Navigating travel restrictions and child custody

Because of COVID-19, there is a travel restriction in place by the Department of Defense that limits members of the military from traveling outside of a 40-mile radius from base, unless permission is preapproved and given.

With how precarious a child custody or family law-related issue can be in normal circumstances, it is critical that the member of the military has experienced counsel that can help them navigate the situation, if conflicts with the restriction arise.

“A lot of servicemembers may have to drive further than 40 miles to meet their ex halfway to exchange custody,” Cordell & Cordell Colorado Litigation Manager Jamie Smith said. “Now, they can’t do that, and it can impact their parenting time if the mother isn’t willing to come to them.”

Mr. Trout highlighted the availability of resources for members of the military to turn to, if they are facing these types of circumstances.

“The point is there resources and help that servicemembers can utilize,” Mr. Trout said. “You just need to reach out to an attorney and have those discussions.”

Modification and relocation

Another family law issue that servicemembers face is child and spousal support. With over 40 million in the United States filing for unemployment and relocation being a factor in military life, support modification may be a pressing need.

“The big issue with relocations is that it can change the BAH, or basic area housing, that the government pays to a servicemember,” Ms. Smith said. “That amount will be based on where they will be stationed. If they have a relocation order that’s pending and may go into effect once the COVID pandemic gets resolved, they need to have an attorney ready to file the paperwork, when they know they’re going to be relocated.

“If that BAH is reduced, because of the cost of living in their new location, that can impact their child support, because modifications take a while. The sooner you can file, the better.”

Additional resources

Cordell & Cordell is continuing to produce weekly Virtual Town Halls and daily podcasts to answer your questions about how the pandemic is impacting family law. You can find a full library of content on this topic on the Cordell & Cordell COVID-19 and Divorce Information Hub.

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