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Servicemembers and non-military spouses pursuing a divorce face a unique set of challenges that civilians do not encounter when attempting to dissolve their union. Getting divorced is a complex process, and it is especially complicated in the military.
Where most pitfalls lie is in the division of certain government benefits. There are particular restrictions for veterans that govern how their benefits are divided during a divorce. Depending on the specific benefit’s conditions, military or veteran benefits may or may not be distributed through a divorce.
A military pension may be considered shared property that must be divided in the event of divorce. In general, marital property that does not meet the criteria of separate property is split at divorce. Property obtained either before or after a divorce is referred to as “separate property.” Property acquired during the marriage is usually considered shared property unless it was received as a gift or inherited entirely in the spouse’s name.
New federal restrictions in 2017 also altered how pensions are distributed throughout all 50 states. The pension is currently locked in time as of the separation, divorce, or annulment date. The purpose of this federal regulation was to prohibit an ex-spouse from receiving a higher-than-normal pension sum. For example, if the servicemember was a Sergeant at the time of the divorce but is now a Master Sergeant, the ex-spouse will get a portion of the retirement income based on the lower rank.
Some examples of military benefits that would be considered separate property include Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) and Veteran Administration Disability Compensation. These payments are considered separate property of the retiree and are not subject to division upon divorce because they involve an injury or medical condition and are not retirement benefits. Similarly, VA disability compensation benefits are not subject to divorce since these benefits are viewed as a particular gratuity provided to veterans with disabilities related to their time in the military as recompense for any diseases or injuries they sustained while serving.
The 20/20/20 rule is something often brought up during a military divorce when deciding upon an ex-spouse’s access to the same benefits as the military spouse The breakdown of the criteria that makes ex-spouses eligible include:
Should the ex-spouse meet all of these requirements, they will receive access to the same benefits as the military spouse for the remainder of their life, provided they don’t remarry. They will still retain their military ID cards, which grant them access to base commissaries and military exchanges. Continuation of Tricare benefits for qualifying spouses is not automatic and must be re-registered under their own names and Social Security Numbers. Tricare requires applicants to provide original copies of their marriage certificates, divorce decrees, and any other papers proving their ex-military spouse’s service or retirement.
According to the Tricare website, eligible former spouses have the same Tricare coverage choices as retired family members up until they remarry or sign up for an employer-sponsored health plan.
Another rule that is often cited during a military divorce when it comes to awarding military pensions is the 10/10 rule. In short, the 10/10 rule states that, if the marriage lasted ten years and the service member or former service member served in the military for at least ten years during that time, the former spouse is entitled to pension payments directly from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS). The spouse’s attorney must ensure that specific language in included in the divorce paperwork.
The rule only addresses the source of payment to the spouse, which is a direct payment. The spouse gets pension-related payments directly from DFAS, which handles payments for the U.S. Department of Defense as a result of the 10/10 rule. As a result, the ex-spouse is freed from the need to rely on and wait for payments from the retired service member.
The 10/10 rule generally causes confusion when retired military personnel claim that the former spouse is only eligible for military pension benefits if the pair were married for at least 10 years while they were together serving in the military. That is incorrect.
The USFSPA is a statute passed by Congress in 1982 to provide some financial protection to some ex-spouses of servicemembers. It permits states to divide military disposable retiree pay as marital property in the event of a divorce. Disposable retirement pay is defined as the total monthly retirement pay, minus:
Further, a former spouse can take out child support or alimony from the military spouse’s retired pay; however, it still requires a court order and must pass the 10/10 rule should the award be sent as a direct payment. According to the USFSPA, no more than 65% of a retired military member’s pension can be deducted for spousal and child support obligations.
The SBP is an annuity that a retiring service member can elect to ensure that their beneficiary receives a portion of the retired pay after they die. SBP is a specific benefit that the retiree must elect, generally at the time of retirement from active duty or immediately upon receiving the 20-year letter as a Reservist, for a spouse, child, or anyone with an insurable interest in the retiree.
Even if some service members decide not to sign up for the SBP plan because they have no qualified beneficiaries, they might later get married or have a kid who qualifies for benefits and want to change their election status. Because the reasons for changing one’s coverage are few and far between, the SBP election made by service members at the time of retirement is difficult to change. In such a case, a service member would have one year from the date of initial eligibility (marital change, childbirth, etc.) to announce their desire to have their beneficiary covered.
In the case of marriages, there are many different nuances to be aware of, and depending on whether it is a remarriage or not, the election process and coverage amount may be subject to change. To learn more about SBP benefits, check out our article “What You Need To Know About Your SBP Benefits” for more information on your rights and coverage.
Despite the fact that the benefits component of divorce is very straightforward, divorces involving military personnel may be highly complex. It’s crucial to know your rights when it comes to your benefits and to seek experienced legal counsel should you have any remaining questions. Even if the marriage lasted fewer than 20 years, the court may nonetheless award a portion of the military member’s retirement to the civilian spouse. Every circumstance is unique; in some circumstances, the parties will divide the pension, while in others, one party will cede their pension rights in exchange for other assets after the divorce.
If you have additional questions about your military benefits in the case of a military divorce, Tully Rinckey’s team of experienced military attorneys is available to assist you today.