I answer a ton of personal finance questions from the community at usaa.com and a similar space at Military.com. While the topics are usually pretty diverse, we were recently hit with a flood of inquiries that made me hope we weren't the only ones hearing these questions. The subject? Military divorce.
I love my job and enjoy answering questions from readers. But as I scrolled through dozens of these divorce questions, I wanted to shout my advice -- "Get help!" -- to these people.
Combine all that's at stake with the complex laws on this subject, and this is one area where you need help. Spending money on quality counsel and advice during the divorce could save you a lot of heartache, headache and wallet-ache later.
At the very least, you should hire a lawyer who's experienced in the nuances of military divorce. You may want to consult with a certified public accountant or a financial planner to truly understand the financial and tax consequences of this life event.
Not convinced? Let me share some frightening examples that have rolled through my inbox. My hope is that these real-life questions will convince you to build a team of advisers if you're ever facing a military divorce.
"Am I entitled to a portion of my spouse's retirement pay?"
Great question, but if you've come out of the divorce process not knowing the answer, it's too late. The Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act allows state courts to divide military retirement as property. But calculating the value of this stream of income, adjusted for inflation, is no simple task. Quality legal and financial counsel can help you accurately assess the value and negotiate an equitable settlement.
"When we were divorced 20 years ago, our divorce required my ex-spouse to carry former-spouse SBP coverage. He passed away. How do I collect?"
Again, this reader is out of luck. You must notify the Defense Finance and Accounting Services within a year after the divorce. I'm a big proponent of SBP -- the Survivor Benefit Plan. It protects the retiring service member's spouse by providing income if the retiree passes away. In a divorce, there are very specific rules and deadlines associated with what happens to this coverage. Knowing the rules, making the appropriate notifications and doing the survivorship planning in the context of the divorce will be part of your adviser's job.
"I was married to my spouse for 20 years while he served in the reserves. Am I eligible for part of his retirement?"
Similar to the first question, a reservist's retirement can be divided, but it needs to be part of the divorce agreement. I've seen numerous situations where reserve retirement, which typically begins at age 60, is not divided or otherwise accounted for during divorce proceedings. That won't be the case if you enlist the right kind of help.
"I feel cornered. My spouse said she'd take away my ID card if I don't yield to her wishes during the divorce. What should I do?"
The rules regarding Tricare, ID cards and installation access among other military benefits are governed by law, not a divorce decree. Your soon-to-be former spouse has no say in this. The right team will make sure you understand all the applicable rules and regulations.
That's just a small sample of the questions I've seen specific to military divorce. Though most of these are from the spouse's perspective, trust me when I say that service members need quality counsel as well. Otherwise, they could end up losing more than necessary. With possibly tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, neither spouse should make the mistake of going it alone in a military divorce.