Military Divorce Issues

Military Divorce

There are nearly 1.1 million active duty American military personnel stationed around the world, and dealing with divorce issues is a serious concern.  In the following areas, service members have certain rights and obligations that are very different from those of civilians:

Where Your Divorce Will Be Filed

From the start, a military divorce can involve questions that other couples don’t face.  The court that grants your divorce must have jurisdiction over you and your spouse, and in most cases you must file for divorce in a state where the military spouse is domiciled or a resident, or in a state that you and your spouse both agree to.

How Support Is Calculated

Like everyone else, service members are legally required to support their children. The Department of Defense requires service members to comply with support, custody, and visitation orders. In fact, the military provides for sanctions, including punishment as severe as separation from military service, for failure to pay support.

Child and spousal support are mostly controlled by individual states, but there are unique issues for military spouses, including calculating support amounts, enforcing support orders when the service member is deployed, and modifying support agreements.

Custody And Visitation Decisions

For military personnel, custody and visitation can be complicated by frequent moves and uncertainty about future deployment.  The military has rules for situations in which a child’s sole caretaker, or both caretakers if there are two parents, might be deployed.  As a result, an order for support or for a change in custody may take a lot longer than the civilian spouse had hoped. In fact, the entire divorce case may be delayed, making it take a lot longer to get the final judgment as well.

That said, there are often issues related to children that need to be resolved promptly so that the children can have some stability and predictability.  You absolutely shouldn’t negotiate your divorce or sign a custody or visitation agreement without at least consulting a lawyer experienced in military divorce.

Pension Rights And Other Benefits

Though it operates under very different rules than the private sector, the military is still an employer. It provides a variety of employment benefits, including medical and pension benefits, life insurance, and various other opportunities. All of these benefits of employment are subject to division in your divorce according to the law of the state in which you are getting divorced but, again, there are some special issues to consider.

To be truly accurate, there is no such thing as a military pension. There is no chunk of money sitting anywhere. Instead, when a person retires from the military, he gets “retired pay.” Every year, the Congress votes on a budget. As part of that budget money is set aside to pay military retirees. The retiree gets paid as long as he is alive. Once he dies, the right to be paid dies with him. There is no chunk of money going to his heir.

Not understanding this fundamental difference between pensions and retired pay can cost parties to a divorce a lot of money.

Unless the service member in your family has been in the military an extremely short time and you have limited assets, you absolutely shouldn’t negotiate your divorce or sign a settlement agreement without at least consulting attorney Barton W. Morris, Jr., for experienced legal advice first.