Divorce In The Military: Understanding The Basics

Getting a divorce can be confusing and stressful, with added complications for those in the military. The process and procedures are basically the same as for civilian couples, but unique situations exist that result from military service. Federal statutes have been established through the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act (USFSPA) – particularly related to determining post-divorce benefits, retirement pay/pension, child support and custody.

The information below can help you obtain a greater understanding of the unique characteristics of military divorce.

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and divorce proceedings

Included in the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is protection of legal rights in a divorce when one spouse is called to active duty. This act allows service members to obtain a postponement of civil or administrative divorce proceedings if they demonstrate that military service prevents them from protecting their legal rights. Most commonly, this “stay” of proceedings is used in the event of deployment. It is not an automatic right, and must be ordered by a military judge if they find justification to do so.

Post-divorce benefits for ex-spouses

Typically, benefit eligibility for former spouses of military members is determined by the 20/20/20 rule. Under this rule, the following criteria must be met:

  • The spouse was married to a service member or retiree for at least 20 years
  • The military member served for at least 20 years
  • The marriage and the military service overlap by at least 20 years.

Qualifying ex-spouses are eligible for most of their former benefits and privileges, including TRICARE health care coverage, commissary privileges and access to MWR facilities. In the event that a former spouse remarries, 20/20/20 benefits end.

If divorcing spouses do not qualify for 20/20/20, they may be eligible for one year of TRICARE coverage through the 20/20/15 Rule. The criteria for this rule are similar to above, with the exception of a marriage and military service overlap time of 15 to 19 years.

Military retirement pay and pensions

For a former military spouse to receive direct payments from the Defense Finance and Account Service (DFAS), ten years of the couple's marriage must overlap with 10 years of service. A qualifying ex-spouse can receive up to 50% of the military retirement pay allotted to the service member. DFAS direct payments begin 90 days after an order is filed if an ex-spouse already receives a pension, or 90 days after a newly-retired service member is able to receive his or her first payment. If a spouse does not qualify for DFAS payments, they may still be eligible to receive retirement pay through terms in the final divorce agreement.

Child support and medical benefits

Every branch of the military has policies regarding support for family members after a divorce, but these measures are only temporary. Formal child support payments must be established through an official agreement or court order. This order should be sent to the DFAS from a state court with jurisdiction or a child support enforcement agency.

TRICARE health care coverage is available for dependent biological and adopted children of service members until age 21, or age 23 if enrolled in college. Dependent children beyond this age can purchase TRICARE Young Adult coverage until age 26. Stepchildren who are not officially adopted by the service member lose TRICARE eligibility, but may be able to purchase coverage through the Continued Health Care Benefit Program.

Get help for your military divorce

Given the complexities associated with divorce in the military, it can be helpful to seek advice and guidance from an experienced attorney. The Brudvik Law Office is here to help you understand your options.