Divorce rates among military couples on the rise

Divorces involving military couples come with very specific challenges. According to the Department of Defense, for the past decade the rate of divorce for military couples has increased from 2.6 percent in 2001 to 3.7 percent in 2011.

A divorce with one or both spouses in the military may have special rules and circumstances. This may be even more complex if one spouse is deployed in active combat during the separation period or the legal proceedings. These differences may significantly affect the divorce process and can potentially affect the outcome. It is important for service members to understand the rules unique to military divorces.

What rules control a military divorce

Unlike a civilian divorce, both state and federal laws govern military divorces. The laws generally affect different aspects of the divorce. For example, an important federal law to note is that the Service Members Civil Relief Act, which protects active-duty service members from divorce proceedings while deployed or for up to 60 days after the deployment.

The process of filing for divorce differs when a spouse is in the military in a number of ways. For example, while a court where a person lives generally has the authority to hear a divorce case, military personnel may be stationed in one place, but hold legal residence in another. Many states permit a spouse to file for divorce if the military service member is stationed there, but not all. In general, military members and their spouses have three options concerning where they can file:

  • The state of the spouse's legal residency
  • The state where the service member is stationed
  • The state of legal residency for the military member

Wherever a person files, the law of that state governs the grounds for divorce, the property distribution, the child custody and any child support issues.

Military divorces and pensions

In the event of divorce, military pensions are subject to division between the spouses. The Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act provides guidance for state courts in that division. Essentially, it subjects division of the military pension to the laws of the state where the divorce has been filed. In addition, if at least 10 years of marriage overlap with 10 years of military service, the federal government will pay the share of the pension awarded by state court to the spouse directly. Regardless of how long the couple was married, a court may still authorize direct payment to a military spouse from the retiring spouse.

With the unique overlap of state and federal law, military divorces are subject to their own special rules. A capable family law attorney with experience in military divorces can help a spouse or military member navigate the legal challenges involved in a military divorce.