I get many, many letters and comments from military service members and military spouses who are facing a marital separation or divorce. The writers ask many good questions and present really interesting situations, and I answer when I am qualified. However, many of these issues are way beyond the scope of my education and experience. I always, always tell the writer that they need to obtain professional legal advice from an attorney who understands the military.
"But Kate, lawyers are expensive!" Yes, I know. You know what is more expensive? A bad divorce in which you don't have your rights adequately represented. There are so many aspects to a military divorce and it is essential that you understand each little issue. And you're dealing with a mix of state divorce laws, federal laws, and military regulations. This is not a job for an amateur!
You can start at your base's legal office, but they will usually only be able to provide general, informational assistance. Separation or divorce is a civil matter and will proceed through the civil courts. You need a legal professional who understands the civil court system, and understands the military system.
Where To LookFinding the right lawyer can be tough. Start with your state's bar association, and ask them for a list of local divorce lawyers who specialize in military cases. You can also do an internet search, listing your state and "military divorce." I did a quick search for Florida and found a lot of options. I also found a lot of ads for quick, cheap divorces. I don't recommend this unless your marriage has been short, you have little or no assets or debts, and no children.
What To AskOnce you've found a few prospective attorneys, meet with them. Most will offer a free consultation. Ask hard questions about their experience with military divorce. You want to know that they thoroughly understand the following issues:
- Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)
- Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act (USFSPA)
- military retirement
- Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)
- veterans benefits
- former spouses medical coverage
- Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI)/Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI)
- Thrift Savings Plan
When You Don't Need A LawyerThere are some cases where legal representation is not necessary. If you are young, don't have children, have not been married long, and have little or no assets or debts, you probably don't need the expense and hassle of professional assistance. However, if you don't fit into all of those categories, please strongly consider military-experienced legal counsel.
Every day I hear stories of military service members or former spouses who have gotten truly awful deals in their divorce. Please don't let it happen to you. If you are facing a separation or divorce, get a good lawyer who understands the military to ensure that you are fairly represented. It may not be cheap, but it is one of the best investments you will ever make.