The logistics of divorce are complicated even under the best of circumstances, and the military’s rules and regulations add complexity. Spouses and service members must understand these guidelines, so they don’t break any rules or miss important benefits. Divorces often cause significant financial hardships, and it’s important to take steps to mitigate the damage. Here, we’ll outline what spouses should know about divorce in the military.
The Process Isn’t Much Different From That of a Civilian Divorce
The military’s court system doesn’t grant or handle divorces, and these cases are handled much like they would be in the civilian world. To get started, papers must be filed with the court and served to the other spouse, and their response must be awaited.
As with civilian divorces, military divorces require the division of property, assets, and debt, along with the resolution of spousal and child support issues. Spouses must also agree on child visitation and custody. If they cannot, a judge will decide for them.
Military Divorces Involve Certain Procedures
Although the legal processes for civilian and military divorces are much the same, certain jurisdictional and procedural issues are to be addressed. Because military members are typically stationed throughout the country and around the world, spouses often find it difficult to know where to file divorce papers. The court in which the case is filed should have jurisdiction over it. If you’ve met residency requirements and your spouse is overseas but expects to return, you’ll file in your home state.
Rules and regulations vary when filing for divorce during a spouse’s active duty. As in civilian divorces, the spouse being served must receive a summons and a complaint. Serving spouses on deployment can be challenging, however, and laws recognize the difficulty.
According to the SCRA or Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, service members on active duty cannot be penalized for their failure to respond to a divorce summons. If a default judgment is handed down while a spouse is on active duty, the case can be reopened, and its judgment may be vacated or put aside.
Where Service Members Can Find Help During a Divorce
Military members have access to multiple resources that may provide the guidance and information needed to get through a divorce, including:
- Military assistance. The Military and Family Life Counseling Program offers nonmedical, confidential counseling. Members can also receive spiritual counsel from military chaplains.
- In most places, local nonprofit organizations provide marriage counseling and support to military members. Some organizations are affiliated with certain religions, but some are not.
These resources give military members a point from which they can begin to navigate a divorce, with the armed forces and local attorneys being able to offer additional advice.
When Military Spouses Commit Adultery
Military members are subject to the UCMJ or Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is a federal law that prohibits adultery, among other things. Infidelity can be extremely hard to document, and a petitioning spouse must prove that:
- The service member had an intimate relationship with another person
- The conduct brought dishonor to the military
Aside from a written confession, videos, or photos, it’s almost impossible to prove the first element—and the second element is open to interpretation. As in the civilian world, the military typically considers adultery to be a civil matter, not a criminal act. However, it may result in a rank reduction, a loss of advancement opportunities, and other disciplinary actions.
Cases Involving Domestic Abuse
Domestic violence is a factor in many divorces, including those involving members of our armed forces. If the perpetrator is a civilian, they will be asked to leave the base and the matter will be handled by local law enforcement.
When the aggressor is a service member, however, things can quickly get complicated. The military may require them to get counseling and go through the Family Advocacy System, and they may also face sanctions under the UCMJ, including potential court martial or discharge.
Serving Divorce Papers to a Military Spouse
In cases where military spouses live off base within the United States, process service requirements are the same as in civilian divorce cases. However, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act may affect how members on active duty are served those papers. For instance, sheriffs and process servers can deliver papers to spouses living on military bases. In these cases, petitioners should contact the appropriate base to ensure that their spouse will be available to receive service.
When members are assigned to overseas bases, spouses may be able to serve divorce papers through the APO (Army Post Office) by sending them via certified, return receipt requested mail. If a military base doesn’t support the service, you’ll need to contact a civilian or an officer who can deliver the papers.
Military Divorces Create Unique Issues
Aside from the complications created by process service, other considerations must be made when initiating a military divorce. While these cases involve the same issues found in civilian divorces—such as child custody, spousal support, and the distribution of debts, assets, and property–military divorces are typically more nuanced. When divorcing a service member, a spouse must determine issues like:
- As in civilian divorces, matters of child custody must be handled before decrees are issued. State courts do not discriminate against parents who may be put on duty as these matters are being decided.
- Child support. It is determined according to state guidelines, and it can’t be over 60% of the military member’s allowance.
- Alimony or spousal support. The court may issue a support order if a spouse depended on a military member for financial support. Again, the amount cannot exceed 60% of the service member’s pay.
- Division of property. Tennessee is an equitable distribution state, which means property acquired during a marriage will be divided equitably—not necessarily equally—in a divorce. A former spouse may be able to get part of a military member’s retirement pay if the marriage and active duty lasted at least ten years.
While former spouses cannot get a share of a military member’s VA disability or combat pay, they can keep TRICARE health insurance benefits if the 20/20/20 rule is met. In simpler terms, the marriage must have endured for 20 years or longer, the military member must have been in the service for a minimum of 20 years, and those two periods must overlap. Divorce attorneys with military experience can explain the 20/20/20 rule and how it may affect your case.
Parental Relocation and PCS Orders
If you’re a military spouse, have custody of your children, and have received PCS orders, you will need to fulfill certain requirements before relocating, including sending a certified or registered letter to the non-custodial parent with:
- A statement of intent to relocate
- The location to which you will move
- The reason for the move
- A notification that the move can be contested by filing a petition in Tennessee’s family court within 30 days of receiving the letter
In most cases, the state’s courts allow military parents on PCS orders to move if the other spouse doesn’t object. If they do oppose the relocation, however, things can get complicated. A local attorney with military divorce experience can protect your rights throughout the process.
Expenses Created by a Military Divorce
Along with new housing costs, other bills may change during a military divorce. Although the military typically pays for relocations, civilian spouses may have to pay their own moving expenses following a divorce. The armed forces may pay for a non-military spouse to come home if they were living at an overseas station, with other expenses being settled in the divorce decree.
Insurance is another crucial consideration. Military members and civilian spouses must budget for separate policies after a divorce, including homeowner’s, auto, health, and renter’s policies. When a divorcing couple is covered by a USAA policy, the civilian spouse keeps their membership even after the divorce is finalized.
Strengthening Financial Positions After a Divorce
Divorces take a significant emotional toll on everyone involved, and the resulting financial uncertainty only makes things worse. Following a divorce, civilian and military spouses must:
- Create budgets that reflect their new bills and income
- Establish emergency funds that hold at least three months’ living expenses
- Protect themselves with renter’s or homeowner’s, auto, life, and health insurance policies
Those transitioning from TRICARE to civilian health plans must learn about out-of-pocket costs, so they’ll be prepared for unexpected events. Once spouses put these safeguards in place, they can set attainable goals for their post-divorce lives.
Contact a Tennessee Military Divorce Lawyer
Any attorney with a Tennessee license can handle a divorce but working with a firm experienced in the nuances of military divorce ensures that everything is handled the right way. Military divorces are subject to state, federal, and military guidelines, as well as case-specific circumstances. Selecting an attorney who knows these rules and how to work within them will increase the chances of a fair outcome while decreasing stress and difficulty. Call Samuel B. Tipton, Attorney at Law to schedule your no-obligation consultation.