Divorce is often particularly difficult for military families. And, in most cases, the challenges do not end when the final judgment is entered. Due to the demands of serving our country, military divorce cases often generate post-judgment modification cases.
When a divorced servicemember has minor children, military orders to a new duty station raise significant questions concerning how the move will impact each parent's relationship and time-sharing with the children.
Section 61.13(2)(c), Florida Statutes, grants the courts jurisdiction to modify the time-sharing and custody aspects of a final judgment. The statute, however, does not expressly state the conditions necessary for modification. Florida courts must therefore look to case law for guidance on how to make this determination.
A trial court’s authority and discretion in a modification proceeding is more restricted than at the time of the original custody determination. See Clark v. Clark, 35 So. 3d 989, 991 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010).
A party seeking modification of a final judgment carries the extraordinary burden of proving (i) a substantial and material change in circumstances, and (ii) that the best interests of the child will be promoted by the requested modification. See Wade v. Hirschman, 903 So. 2d 928, 933 (Fla. 2005).
Any alleged change in circumstances must also be unanticipated at the time of the Final Judgment. See Ogilvie v. Ogilvie, 954 So. 2d 698, 702 (Fla. 1st DCA 2007); see also Mesibov v. Mesibov, 16 So. 3d 890, 892 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009) (holding that “the substantial and material change must be one that was not reasonably contemplated at the time of the original judgment”).
The “substantial change” test applies to all requests for modification of custody decrees, “including those adopted by a trial court pursuant to an agreement of the parties as well as those established after an adversarial hearing on the issue of custody.” See Bazan v. Gambone, 924 So. 2d 952, 955-56 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006).
Under these authorities, when a servicemember is ordered to a new duty station, the servicemember will typically be able to demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances. A possible exception would be the case where the final judgment was entered at a time when the servicemember knew about the prospective orders or change of duty station.
When an experienced military divorce attorney prepares a parenting plan for a servicemember, the attorney should discuss with the servicemember whether to include a long-distance time-sharing schedule to serve as a default if the servicemember moves out of the jurisdiction. This time-sharing schedule may apply until such time that the court has an opportunity to establish a new time-sharing schedule. One reasons this default schedule might be important is because Florida law does not favor temporary relief in post-judgment modification cases, except where there is an actual demonstrated emergency. See Braswell v. Braswell,935 So. 2d 604, 606 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006); see also Smith v. Crider, 932 So. 2d 393, 398 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2006). This law means that a servicemember may have to wait until trial for modification.
The Final Judgment may also provide that a change of duty station will constitute a substantial change in circumstances notwithstanding the existence of the default long-distance time-sharing schedule. Without this language, the local parent could argue that the move was "anticipated" by the final judgment. But, the default long-distance time-sharing schedule may not appropriate due to the location of the new duty station. For example, a servicemember stationed on a different continent would not need the same time-sharing schedule as a servicemember stationed only a few hours away.
Providing a default long-distance time-sharing schedule will allow the servicemember to keep the schedule if it works. Including language regarding the modification will allow the servicemember (or the other parent) to still seek modification in the event that the default time-sharing schedule does not service the best interest of the children.