Family lawyers face a variety of questions when dealing with returning service members.

By Mark E. Sullivan, Family Lawyer

Empty outposts overseas mean full billets and bedrooms back at home. In view of the “new phase” of relations between the U.S. and Iraq, using Vice-President Joe Biden’s language, we can expect many returning service members (SMs) in the next year. The redeployment of military personnel back to their stateside assignments and their homes will be the result of significant drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. How will this impact the family lawyer?

Military personnel who are returning from the Middle East are not only from the active-duty forces (Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines); they are also from the Reserve Component, namely, the National Guard and the Reserves. Thus, the homecoming impact will be felt nationwide, not just in communities near military bases. While reuniting with one’s family will be a joyous experience for some SMs, it may create significant stresses for others. And these stresses may lead to legal consequences.

Stresses may arise due to one party having been solely in charge of the home for the entire deployment, without any help and with heavy responsibilities for running the home, managing the budget, taking care of children and – quite often – holding down a job as well. Having been away for a year in most cases, the returning SM has his or her own issues. These SMs need time to decompress and to adjust to new responsibilities, routines and duties — both at home and at work.

Sometimes there is an “interim relationship” which was formed while one spouse was gone. If so, this will have to be dissolved so that the marriage may continue. When this doesn’t happen, the marriage will be in trouble and a separation is definitely on the radar screen. The impacts on the parties include separation, interim support, domestic violence, temporary custody and many more issues.

The result for the family lawyer is a confusing welter of rules, laws, cases and problems. When does state law govern? When should the injured party seek redress through the military? How does federal law affect the conflict? Where can one locate co-counsel who is familiar with these matters, a consultant who can give quick and accurate advice, or an expert witness who is available in person or by phone or Skype to assist the court? These are questions that family lawyers must be prepared to answer now — not later — if they are to effectively assist SM clients who are returning to “the Home Front.”


Mark E. Sullivan, a retired Army Reserve colonel, practices family law in Raleigh, NC and is the author of The Military Divorce Handbook (ABA., 2nd Ed. 2011), from which portions of this article are adapted. He is a Fellow of the AAML and a board-certified specialist in family law. He works with attorneys nationwide as a consultant on military divorce issues. His firm’s website is www.ncfamilylaw.com.