Military Divorce: Unique Issues And Considerations

military divorce unique issues and considerationsPeople don’t always realize that military divorces are somewhat different than their civilian counterparts. For example, one of the most significant differences is that divorce proceedings, including the final divorce and child custody agreements, are governed by the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA), which alters where an individual may (or may not) want to file for divorce.

We always recommend seeking pre-divorce legal counseling before officially filing for divorce. Working with a family law specialist beforehand ensures you know all of your options and professional advice on what to do – or what not to do – throughout the process.

5 Ways Military Divorce Is Different

Here are five ways military divorce proceedings are different.

Finalizing child custody and visitation proceedings may be more challenging

We’re putting this difference first because we believe the children’s best interest should ALWAYS be a top priority in any divorce – regardless of what water flows beneath the parents’ bridges. The states’ family law courts decide child support, and most states (including California) determine a service member’s portion using their total entitlement (base pay, housing allowance, subsistence allowance, and any other special pay). 

However, all military branches (excluding the Air Force) have their own rules on how much parents should pay. If you’re in the military, start there, and it may simplify things for you during the settlement process. Also, remember that once child support is set, only the family law court can change the amount. If anything about the military member’s pay will change in the near future due to deployments, base transfers, upcoming discharge, etc., speak to a lawyer about customizing the terms of the child support order ahead of time to prevent having to go back to court.

When it comes to child custody, the courts now tend to do what’s best for the child. However, unless there is something compromising or dangerous with remaining with the non-active duty spouse, it’s rare for active duty military personnel to get full child custody due to the upheaval and disruption in a child’s life if/when a parent is deployed. 

You have a choice about where to file your divorce

Typically, couples living in California for six months or more must file their divorce in California. This is not the case for couples where one or both people are in the military. Adults in many military couples have residency in two different states, which means you can choose which state you want to file your divorce. 

However, you’ll want to choose carefully. The USFSPA dictates that the state of legal residence of the military member always has the power to divide the military pension in a divorce. So, let’s say your spouse is in the military, and you are not. You live in California, and she lives in Tennessee. Usually, California is a community property state, which means all of your assets – including any retirement savings or pension funds accrued during your marriage – are split evenly. 

However, Tennessee is not a community property. It adopts something called equitable distribution, which means the state divides things equitably – but only sometimes equally. You want to file your divorce in the state that is most likely to distribute assets in your favor if there is a difference.

Active military personnel can file for a “Stay” through the SCRA

In California, the person filing for a divorce is called the “Petitioner,” and the person being served the divorce papers is the “Respondent.” Once served, the Respondent has 30 days to respond. If they don’t respond or sign the papers in 30 days, the Petitioner can continue moving forward by taking some extra steps. If you or your spouse is on active duty, you can request this time be extended.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) was designed to prevent active military members. This gives them up to 90 days to respond, and they can request more time on top of that. The “stay” is intended to keep active military members focused on their jobs so they aren’t consumed by the stress and steps required to move forward with a divorce. The military court will not continually grant extensions without good reason, but it’s worth being prepared. 

A non-military may be able to keep their healthcare plan

If you’ve been married for 20 years or more to an active duty member of the military, you may be able to keep your spouse’s TRICARE coverage at no cost. The military calls this the 20/20/20 rule (20 years of marriage, including 20 years of active duty and 20 years of overlap. If you have medical coverage available through your employer, TRICARE becomes the secondary form of insurance.

If you don’t meet the 20/20/20 rule, you may be able to pay for something called “conversion coverage” through the military’s Continued Health Care Benefit Program (CHCBP). There are several qualifying stipulations, but qualifying ex-spouses can have this coverage for at least 36 months, eventually allowing you to migrate onto your non-military insurance plan.

Dividing retirement plans can be tricky

Military pension and retirement plans can be tricky to divide in a divorce. In some cases, it makes more sense to trade retirement benefits for current assets to keep things streamlined. However, that isn’t always possible. If and how a military pension can or will be divided in a divorce varies according to multiple factors. 

Also, know that If a portion of your pension will be paid to your ex-spouse after retirement, you’ll probably be mandated to pay for something called the Survival Benefit Plan. This means that if you die before your ex-spouse, they’ll continue receiving their portion of your pension for the rest of their life. 

Gerard A. Falzone Provides Mediation & Collaboration For Military Divorces

Mediated or collaborative divorce are both smart options for navigating a military divorce efficiently and with the least amount of stress or contention possible. In addition to keeping you out of the courtroom, these variations in divorce proceedings can save you thousands of dollars.

Working with a family law specialist with experience handling military divorces is always best to ensure everyone’s best interests are honored during the proceedings. Contact Gerard A Falzone to schedule your military divorce consultation.