Life in the military can be extremely stressful on a marriage. Deployments can keep a spouse away for months at a time, periodic relocations at unpredictable intervals can be very disruptive to family life, and the psychological stress of serving in a combat zone can cause problems even after a spouse returns from active duty.
It’s no surprise that, according to a Defense Department survey, military divorces have increased dramatically in the years since September 11, 2001.
Like a military marriage, a military divorce can be very complicated. It can create logistical, geographical and legal issues that wouldn’t even occur to most civilians.
For instance, how do you serve divorce papers on someone who is stationed overseas, perhaps in a war zone? Serving papers is a critical step in the process, but an agent who would normally serve the papers might not be allowed on a military base for security reasons.
The rules in foreign countries often depend on treaties and military agreements with the specific country, so they’ll vary from place to place and are subject to frequent changes. In some cases, divorce papers even have to be translated into the official language of the foreign country – even though they’re being served on someone who speaks English!
There’s also a federal law that says that lawsuits (including divorces) can be put on hold if a service member’s duties prevent him or her from fully participating in the suit. If a military spouse is stationed overseas, it’s possible that a divorce may have to be delayed until he or she returns.
Military families typically move around a lot, so there might be several different states in which a spouse could legally file for divorce. Sometimes a big question is which state’s law will apply to the divorce, which could end up having a significant effect on the spouses’ rights.
For instance, different states have different laws on how to divide a pension, especially if it hasn’t “vested” yet. Military pensions are unusual in that they typically don’t vest until the service member has been in the military for 20 years. So which state’s law applies could make a big difference in how military retirement pay is split.
Military members can also contribute to a thrift savings plan, which is similar to a 401(k) plan. But there are special rules for dividing assets in a thrift savings plan that are different from those for 401(k) plans.
In addition, military members are allowed to contribute to a survivor benefit plan, which provides an annuity to a deceased member’s spouse. Sometimes a divorce court will require a service member to continue this coverage, and convert it from a “spouse annuity” to a “former spouse annuity.” If this happens, there are additional rules for what happens if either the service member or the spouse remarries.
Health insurance is also different in the military. A divorced spouse may be entitled to military health benefits if the couple were married for a 20-year period during which the other spouse was on duty. Some spouses who are near the 20-year mark have been known to delay their divorce in order to take advantage of this benefit.
Former spouses who don’t qualify can still often buy low-cost health insurance from the military for three years after the divorce, and longer in some circumstances.
Finally, there’s the issue of child custody and visitation when one parent may be suddenly deployed far away. Whatever agreement a couple reaches must take this possibility into account, and contingency plans need to be in place if a parent is deployed with little or no notice.
In the past, it was often difficult for spouses in the military to obtain custody of minor children, simply because of the unpredictability of military life. But times are changing, and now that many military bases have good schools and recreational facilities and free day care, it’s gotten easier for many service members to argue that they should be awarded custody.