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Divorcing A Military Member? What Should You Know?

If you've recently made the difficult decision to file for divorce from your spouse, you're probably feeling unsettled and wondering about what will happen next. These feelings and questions can be compounded if your spouse is a member of the military. You may be concerned about your ability to relocate away from your spouse's station, or whether you and your spouse will be able to successfully co-parent your children. You might also have financial concerns, particularly when it comes to retirement decisions. Fortunately, there are a number of rules in place to help make this process easier for members of the military and their spouses. Read on to learn more about some of the special laws and procedures that govern divorce when your spouse is a member of the U.S. armed forces.

What makes military divorces different?

When two civilians divorce, both have a great deal of autonomy to begin their new lives. Although children can complicate the picture, preventing one spouse from moving out of state if the court orders joint custody, in general these ex-spouses are able to conduct themselves independently.

Military divorces can be a bit more complex. If your spouse is an active duty member, he or she may still be deployed or reassigned to a station across the country. Although it's unlikely you'll be required to move to your spouse's new area, this separation can make custody and child support decisions much more difficult. And because many military spouses find it difficult to find well-paying full-time work when stations are changed so frequently, you may want to seek alimony or spousal support to help you get back on your feet and begin a new career. You may also be behind on your retirement savings and counting on a portion of your spouse's military pension to help support yourself after you can no longer work.

What should you expect (or ask for) during your divorce?

The three most important factors in a military divorce are children, earning potential, and retirement. Determining your priority among these items is the first step -- although it's likely you'll be able to get much of what you want when it comes to one or two factors, getting everything you want on all three factors is unlikely.

  • Children

If you and your spouse have minor children, some tough decisions will need to be made. You'll have to decide whether you'd like to share custody or seek sole physical or legal custody. If you have shared custody or sole custody and your spouse earns substantially more than you do, he or she will be required to pay child support -- the amount is generally based on gross monthly income. You'll also need to decide how changes in geographical location will affect your children. If your spouse receives change of station orders and must move across the country, how will visitation be handled? You may decide to change the traditional weekend schedule to allow your spouse to have longer, more infrequent visits.

  • Earning potential

If you put your career on hold to follow your spouse around the country, and will need some time or additional training to become a viable employee, you may be entitled to spousal support or alimony. The amount of alimony and length of time it's required will depend on the length of your marriage, your earning potential as compared to your spouse, and the other factors that led to the divorce (for example, if your spouse committed domestic abuse or adultery).

  • Retirement

The military pension is one of the most valuable benefits of military service -- to both the servicemembers and their spouses. The federal government has enacted a law (the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act) that addresses the division of a military pension during divorce. There are several acceptable ways to divide the pension, and the best way often depends on your specific situation and financial needs. You should consult an attorney who is experienced in representing military spouses to determine how you can achieve equity in this situation.