Paycheck Chronicles

Divorcing? You Probably Need A Lawyer


I regularly hear from military service members or their spouses who are considering or pursuing a divorce, asking for advice about various issues.  My number one piece of advice is this:  get a lawyer.

I believe that nearly all individuals who are divorcing can benefit from the counsel of an attorney, but if the divorce includes a military member, a lawyer is a must.  There are too many unique considerations for a military divorce to be a do-it-yourself deal.

Questions About Where To File

Because military families often "live" in places that aren't their state of legal residence, the first question in a divorce is "Where should I file?"  Options include the service member's state of legal residence, the place where the service member is stationed, or the location where the spouse resides.  State laws about divorce and support very widely; a good lawyer can help you choose the best state to file.

Custody and Support of Minor Children

If there are children from the marriage that is ending, there are special considerations for military members.  First, what sort of custody arrangement is going to work best with an active duty parent?  How do military benefits such as Tricare impact any support arrangements?  Lots of details need to be considered - far more than in a typical civilian divorce.

Timing of the Separation or Divorce

Due to the 20/20/20 rule and the 20/20/15 rule, divorcing couples may find that there are significant benefits for delaying the legal divorce.  When they know all the information, couples may decide that the inconvenience of a delay is worth the substantial amount of benefits that may be gained.

Also, some states will count time when separated by deployment towards any required period of living apart.  If the separation is planned, you may be able to use the deployment to your benefit when organizing things.

Survivor Benefit Plan

The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) allows retired military members to purchase coverage that will continue a portion of their military retirement pay to eligible beneficiaries after their death. Former spouses are one of the classes of eligible beneficiaries. In some cases, the ability to select SBP may be an important part of the property settlement agreement.  A lawyer with experience in military divorces will be able to help guide you to the best solution for your particular situation.

Division of Military Retirement Pay

While all sorts of retirement accounts, including the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) are divisible, the division of military retirement pay has some special issues.  These include the amount of the division, considerations for future pay raises or promotions after the divorce, and the impact of disability pay on retirement income.  It's complicated stuff even for the experts.

I could write thousands of words about the special concerns of divorcing couples when one or both parties are in the military.  If you are facing divorce, I hope that this article convinces you that professional assistance is a wise investment.

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