Differences Between Military and Civilian Divorce

If you or your spouse is in the military, divorce will be a little more complicated than it is for civilians.

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If you are one of the nearly 1.1 million active duty American military personnel stationed around the world -- or if you’re married to someone who is -- you’ll be dealing with some divorce issues that don’t affect civilians. Having one’s spouse in the military affects:

  • where your divorce will be filed
  • how support is calculated
  • custody and visitation decisions, and
  • pension rights and other benefits.

In all these areas, service members have certain rights and obligations that are very different from those of civilians.

Filing for Divorce

From the start, a military divorce can involve questions that other couples don’t face. Case in point: Where should you file for divorce? The court that grants your divorce must have what’s known as “jurisdiction” over you and your spouse.  In most cases, you must file for divorce in a state where the military spouse is domiciled or a resident, or in a state that you and your spouse both agree to. "Residency and Domicile Requirements for Military Divorce" explains what you need to know.

Support for Children and Spouses

Like everyone else, service members are legally required to support their children. The Department of Defense requires service members to comply with support, custody, and visitation orders. In fact, the military provides for sanctions, including punishment as severe as separation from military service, for failure to pay support. (Possibly for this reason, support compliance rates are significantly higher among military personnel than among civilians.)

Child and spousal support are mostly controlled by individual states, but there are unique issues for military spouses, including calculating support amounts, enforcing support orders when the service member is deployed, and modifying support agreements.

To learn more, see "Calculating Child Support When the Paying Parent Is in the Military" and consult the resource list below.

Child Custody and Visitation

Sharing custody of children after a divorce is always challenging. For military personnel, custody and visitation can be complicated by frequent moves and uncertainty about future deployment. For details, see "Child Custody When One Parent Is in the Military" and "Child Custody and the SCRA." 

Pension Rights and Other Benefits

Though it operates under very different rules than the private sector, the military is still an employer. It provides a variety of employment benefits, including medical and pension benefits, life insurance, and various other opportunities. All of these benefits of employment are subject to division in your divorce according to the law of the state in which you are getting divorced but, again, there are some special issues to consider. To learn more, see "Dividing Military Pensions" and "Post-Divorce Health Care When One Spouse Is in the Military," and consult the resource list below.

You Will Need Legal Help

Unless the service member in your family has been in the military an extremely short time and you have limited assets, you absolutely shouldn’t negotiate your divorce or sign a settlement agreement without at least consulting a lawyer experienced in military divorce. Most likely, you’re going to want to hire a lawyer to represent you all through the divorce. You may be able to get some free legal help through the military; see the list below.

For More Information

You can turn to the following sources for additional guidance.

This article is adapted from the book, Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow, which provides a thorough overview of the military divorce process.

by: , Attorney

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