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Things to Consider with a Military Divorce

Pensions and Paperwork, Important Considerations in Military Divorce

While family law is a state or commonwealth issue, when one or both of a married couple are active or retired US Military servicemembers, there are additional complexities that must be addressed in the divorce process. Northern Virginia, Maryland and the Washington DC area are home to thousands of present and former military personnel, so it is particularly relevant that Kate Reese was recently joined by Leah Jones, a Certified Financial Divorce Analyst with Hightower Bethesda, on her podcast Family Matters With Reese Law, to talk about some of the unique issues related to a military divorce.  

Identify Whether You Have Rights Related to the Military in Your Divorce

The US military is comprised of all of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, Space Force, and Coast Guard. In addition, there are Reserve forces. Present and past members of the military have a vast, unique system of compensation and benefits. There are certain critical documents that lay out information about these benefits to the service member, but understanding whether and when their spouse might be entitled to certain benefits takes an additional layer of research and understanding of the rules and regulations. For example, a marriage of 20 years to a spouse who has served 20 years in the military may entitle a person to an array of health care and other benefits reserved for military families like a military ID and access to commissaries. If seeking a divorce, be sure to work with an attorney who has experience with military benefits. They will ask you the right questions and work with you to gather the federal forms and other documentation that you will need to obtain your benefits.

Pensions Are A Marital Asset to Which A Spouse Has an Equitable Right

One of the most important benefits available to servicemembers is the military pension, which is by far the most advantageous pension available from any US employer. It not only begins to accrue from the moment of employment (i.e. enlistment), it is payable to former servicemembers upon an established date for the benefit to been active retirement from the service, regardless of age. Needless to say, short terms of service do not result in a particularly significant pension benefit if any, but the spouse of a servicemember is entitled to a share of the pension that depends on circumstances like length of the marriage as it relates to the military service. These circumstances are partially determined by state law, so it is critical to work with a practitioner who is familiar with key family law concepts in a particular jurisdiction as they relate to military service. 

Many Issues Are Negotiable in a Private Settlement 

When considering what benefits to pursue in a divorce from a military spouse, it is important to take a holistic view of the marital assets and short and long-term financial needs. For instance, a spouse may be entitled to a portion of a military pension, but another asset like the marital home may have greater value for purposes of stability for the children. On the other hand, retirement benefits, including the pension and any Thrift Savings Plan, provide critical income later in life, so it is worth careful consideration before giving these up in exchange for a cash or other immediate payout. Finally, while the state court will have its hands tied in terms of awarding a spouse their military benefits, these can be waived, traded or otherwise modified in a private settlement between the parties if permissible by the federal government. Be careful not to trade away benefits like the 20/20 access to health care since this is a benefit that is invaluable, particularly in the case of a grey divorce. 

The military equivalent to a paystub – the Leave and Earnings Statement – is a starting place for understanding what benefits may be available when divorcing a servicemember. But there are many other sources of information specific to the marital and service history of a particular individual. It is important to work with an experienced attorney to make sure you don’t miss out. While you may want to trade one benefit for an alternative, you should know the full picture before agreeing to anything.

Kate Reese has been working with military families for over 20 years, and she has seen the many ways that this space can be confusing and complicated when dealing with a divorce. If you or your spouse serve in the military, and you want to understand the landscape and protect your interests, contact Reese Law for a consultation.

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