DEFENDING AMERICA
October 1,1996

DIVORCE, MILITARY STYLE

BY DAVID EVANS

Here's a poster those aspiring to join and to make a career of the military are not likely to see in local recruiting offices or displayed on unit bulletin boards, but it is based on absolute fact:

MARRY MILITARY'
· No Requirement to Enlist
· Comprehensive Benefits
· Early Retirement Without Any Monetary Investment

The text reads:

"You may avail yourself of all these benefits and retire when you are ready with a generous government allowance for life - merely by divorcing your military mate. You may even continue to enjoy medical care and shopping privileges on military bases if you have been married long enough at the time of divorce.

"During your divorce, the government will treat you as faultless. There is no penalty for adultery, neglect, mental abuse or any other misconduct on your part. Social Security benefits to which you are entitled will be unaffected. Nor will you be prevented from receiving child support and alimony. Best of all, payments will not stop if you remarry.

"Although your military spouse must serve for at least 20 years before he or she is eligible for retirement pay, you could receive up to 50 percent of it by being married for only a matter of minutes.

"If, however, you are married for a 10-year period that coincides with your spouse's military service, you are entitled to receive your half of the retirement pay directly from government pay offices. You won't have to deal directly with an embittered former spouse to get your money. In addition, the payments to you will be based on the rank of your former spouse upon retirement, thereby boosting the share to you based on any promotions your former mate receives following your divorce.

You may also marry and divorce more than one military member and collect a share of retirement from each of them, thereby building a substantial nest egg for your golden years.

"Marry a military member today and get set for life, even if it's with someone else!"

That's divorce, military style. These unique provisions of divorce that apply to the armed forces are a direct result of a 1983 law known as the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act. This legislation was sponsored by Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo.

The Honorable Miz Schroeder was stimulated to push for this legislation after a spate of pitiful stories surfaced about impoverished former military wives dumped by seemingly heartless husbands, many of whom held senior rank and were clearly able to provide support.

Schroeder's legislation opened the door for state courts to divide military retired pay, using it to provide ex-spouses with an assured, if modest, means of financial support.

In practice, the law's loopholes have been the source of a whole range of inequities and inconsistencies. Members of Congress have not subjected themselves to the rules they have imposed on the military. Retired Foreign Service officers and CIA agents are protected by legislation that mandates the termination of any retired pay to ex-spouses when they remarry. Not so with former military spouses, one of whom seems like a sequential polygamist. She has remarried three times and is now drawing on three retired pay accounts, while presently married to a fourth military retiree.

An active-duty Air Force major was ordered to pay his ex-wife of 10 years half the retired pay of a lieutenant colonel when he became eligible at 20 years of service. In another case, a naval officer divorced at the rank of commander was later ordered to split his pay as a retired rear admiral with his ex-wife.

The fixes to these absurdities are straightforward. Congress could (1) terminate the division of retirement pay when the former spouse remarries; (2) base the division of pay on the rank of the service member at the time of divorce, not the time of retirement; and (3) require spouses to be married for a minimum of 15 years in order to be eligible for a fraction of their mate's retired pay. These modest changes would go a long way toward disabusing military veterans of the feeling that they have been marked for discriminatory treatment. They aren't asking for a win in divorce courts, just a tie.

David Evans is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.