ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - For those in the armed forces, divorce can be a whole new battleground.
“It’s ironic because these are trained fighters and they can find themselves in a battle they are not prepared for,” said attorney Cynthia Hawkins Clark.
Although military family law cases go through civilian courts, they often present a unique set of challenges with deployments, military pensions and child custody, said Clark and Paula J. Peters, who practice at the Law Offices of Paula J. Peters P.A. in Annapolis.
And with Fort Detrick, Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Andrews Air Force Base, the Naval Academy and other bases in Maryland, there are many military members locally who need legal assistance, Clark and Peters said.
“I can’t think of anything more satisfying,” Clark said. “It’s very hard not be invested in them. They are very good people.”
The challenges of representing service members vary depending on whether they are on active duty or retired, attorneys said.
For active service members, the key issues often involve the couple’s children. Long deployments mean long absences from that child’s life, which can make it hard to get joint or shared custody.
“It’s a hard road to hoe in terms of making a case for that, when they have been an absentee parent,” Clark said. “It’s a disservice. They serve our country but they don’t really get credit for the contributions they make as a parent.”
Increasingly, Clark said, she is dealing with cases in which two service members are divorcing and making arrangements for the child or children depending on when each parent is deployed.
“It can get very tricky,” Clark said. “The service requirement just generally imposes such hardships on these families, so it’s not atypical these arrangements run into trouble.”
Maryland judges are not always sympathetic to situations where former military spouses are far apart, since they look at it through their own parenting lens instead of a military one, Peters said.
“The rules are not set up to deal with that, really,” Peters said. “It is hard to get judges to be flexible.”
And if formerly married military spouses are living on opposite sides of the country - or world - there is the added complication of who should pay travel expenses related to custody or visitation.
Finally, laws vary from state to state, and with the frequent transfers that can accompany military life, it is not always clear which state is the child’s “home state” under the Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Enforcement Act. Even when a home state is established, the courts there may decide it is better to defer to another state.
A move is underway to standardize custody rules for military families. The Uniform Law Commission approved language for a model Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act in July 2012. Under the model act, past deployment and “possible future” deployment cannot be used against a parent in a custody proceeding, although imminent deployment can be considered.