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Active military father stuck in Cailfornia; mother took son to Georgia; any chance of 50/50 custody?

Your Question:
My wife of 4 years left me 1/27/05 with our then 18 month- old son without warning and moved into her parents' home in GA. She was overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being a stay-at-home mom,a homemaker, and wife. She says she is afraid to return because she fears for her safety, although that has no basis. Within 30 minutes of checking into the motel in their hometown during my first visit on 4/2/05, I was served separation papers. I am active duty military stationed in CA until 10/07 and my requests for transfer to the east coast have been denied. We are both good parents, and my GA attorney tells me primary custody is awarded to the mother 90% of the time. I would like at least 50/50 custody and propose our son change residences every four months. A child psychologist I've talked with says at his age, that wouldn't be unreasonable, at least until he starts school. Another solution I've proposed is for my wife to move back to CA and find a job out here so that I could be close to our son. She refuses. Her controlling parents adore the "son they've always wanted" and have convinced her to stay with them. She is happy with the arrangement (she never really left her parents) and the relative lack of responsibility she has there. Any suggested strategies?

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My Answer:

I'm realizing that I'm really at a loss to help many of the active military parents who write to me. You may need to consult with an attorney who is familiar with any relief afforded to you under the Soldier and Sailor Civil Relief Act. I have no idea if it can help you, but worth looking into.

That said, it seems as though you're really screwed here. Thanks for protecting our country, eh?

I really can't see an order for 50/50 for a four year old whose parents are 3000 miles apart. I would disagree that your son should change his home every four months. A child in the formative years needs stability and predictability. Just as he gets settled in one home, uproot him and then do the same thing again in four months? I just don't see a judge going for this plan. He's a year away from kindergarten too, so that would put the kabash on such a plan anyway.

The court will look at the present situation and rule from there. So, without assigning any blame or fault, let's lay out the foundation of what you've got:

  • Both parents are adequate parents.

  • You really can't move for 2.5 years.

  • A court can't order mom to move (i.e., the Constitution gives us freedom of movement)

  • You can be called to duty at any time, I suppose. If son lives with you, where would that leave him? That's a big question.

  • Mom chose to move son 3000 miles away from Dad, and she probably knew Dad couldn't move to be close to son.

  • Mom has a stable home living with the grandparents who adore the grandchild.

  • Son has been in his current home for 3 months.

Unfortunately for many people who have been sucker-punched by the other parent, the court looks at the status quo arrangement as counting heavily to its ruling. You'll have to convince a court why the status quo is not in the child's best interest. Based upon the above facts, I think you're going to have a very tough time with it.

Your strongest argument is that the son's mother intentionally moved 3000 miles, knowing full well that the father would have difficulty remaining connected to the child. If you're a good dad who has been involved with his child, what the mother did is not in the child's best interest. But again, I don't think it's enough, because Mom will outline all the positive things that came from such decision.

Here's what I can see as being good for your son for remaining connected to you in a sustainable way:
  • You have no choice but to remain in California, and you would have preferred that the mother remain in California so that the two of you could co-parent this child. The mother made the willful decision to put 3000 miles between you, knowing that you likely wouldn't be able to move. Therefore, I'd ask the court to make the mother responsible for 75% to 100% of the child's travel costs to see you until you can transfer to Georgia in October 2007 (or failing that, as soon as you can).

  • At this age, it's important for a child to see a parent regularly to maintain a bond. I think it's reasonable that the mother will bring son to you once per month for 72 consecutive hours in your home (i.e., I assume it's the home in which he was raised, so no problems with familiarity). And then mom brings him back-- so she would need to find a hotel or some other accommodations during those 3 days.

  • Additionally, in lieu of the monthly weekends in July and August, I could see a court giving you 8 solid weeks during the summer.

  • Additionally, in lieu of the monthly weekend in December and in April, I can see a court giving you a week over Christmas (or winter break, if you're not Christian) and a week during Spring Break (i.e., whenever Spring Break is in his future Georgia school system).

  • Finally, if you can get mom to stipulate that your move to Georgia would constitute a significant change of circumstance, it lets you go back to court in a couple years to modify this parenting plan as soon as you move there.

While you don't get your 50/50 plan immediately, this would ensure that you and your son spend quality time every month, with extended time 3 times a year. If you add up the total time, you're approaching 33% on this plan. It also gives your son continuity and stability in mom's home for much of the year.

Finally, I would fight like heck to make sure this is called joint custody with no assignment of a primary custodial parent. This could make it a bit easier for you to try for 50/50 in a couple years when you live close to mom.

Sorry for what you're facing, and sorry I can't give a more promising response. Ask your attorney if my proposal seems likely for your judge to order. It's also worth consulting a second attorney in the area, just so you're clear on the odds you're facing in all of this.

Both you and your son will cherish every minute of the time that you have together in coming years, and that quality of time and investment in the parent/child bond will really bring you guys together. Quality... not quantity.

Good luck.


This website gives common sense advice that is not intended to act as legal guidance nor psychological guidance. The author is neither an attorney nor licensed psychologist. For specific legal guidance or specific psychological guidance, consult with a licensed professional.

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