Post-Divorce Health Care When One Spouse Is in the Military

It's critical that you understand how you and your children will obtain health care benefits after a divorce where one parent is a military service member.

It's critical that you understand how you and your children will obtain health care benefits after a divorce where one parent is a military service member. This article explains what you need to know to ensure your coverage does not lapse.

Who Qualifies for TRICARE After a Divorce?

The medical benefits program available to active duty service members, retirees, and family members is called TRICARE. To qualify, each eligible person must have complete and correct information on file with the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). There are a number of different types of TRICARE plans, but basic TRICARE coverage is free to a service member and the service member’s family, with no co-payments or prescription costs.

After a divorce, a service member’s children continue to qualify for TRICARE. Unfortunately for civilian spouses, unless you meet some pretty stringent requirements, you will no longer qualify once you are divorced. You get to keep your TRICARE coverage only if all of the following things are true:

  • You don’t qualify for health insurance through your own employment.
  • You haven’t remarried.
  • You meet the requirements of the 20/20/20 rule, meaning that you were married for at least 20 years, your spouse has at least 20 years of military service, and there was at least a 20-year overlap between those two time periods. (Lesser benefits are available to spouses who meet a 20/20/15 rule, meaning the overlap was at least 15 years.)

For example, say you were married in January of 1984 to a spouse who was already in military service. If your spouse is still in the military when you divorce any time after January of 2004, you’ll continue to get TRICARE coverage because you were married more than 20 years, your spouse was in the military more than 20 years, and those time periods overlap. In contrast, if you married in 1984, your spouse joined the military in 1988, and you divorced in 2006, you’d have the 20 years of marriage but not the 20 years of military service.

COBRA and CHCBP Coverage

The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) is an insurance continuation law that sometimes provides coverage for spouses who are divorcing the person whose employment is their source of medical insurance. It does not apply to spouses in a military divorce. However, there is a plan called the Continued Health Care Benefit Program (CHCBP) that offers transitional insurance benefits designed to help you move from TRICARE to coverage through your civilian employment. CHCBP can also provide coverage for preexisting medical conditions during the period that your new policy excludes them, if any. You have only 60 days after you lose your military medical benefits to apply for CHCBP coverage, so be sure to seek coverage promptly.

You can keep CHCBP coverage for up to 36 months. It’s possible that some people may be able to keep it longer if they meet certain criteria -- they must have been enrolled in TRICARE at the time of the divorce, must not be covered under any other health insurance, must not remarry before reaching age 55, and must either receive a portion of the service member’s military retirement or be the beneficiary of the Survivor Benefit Plan. If you meet all these criteria, ask an attorney to advocate for your right to maintain your CHCBP insurance coverage.

CHCBP rates aren’t cheap, but they’re not the highest, either. For more information about CHCBP, see the Humana Military Healthcare Services website.

Other Options for Medical Benefits

If you no longer qualify for military medical benefits, it doesn’t mean that your former spouse is automatically off the hook for your health insurance or health care expenses. You may want to negotiate to have your health insurance expenses taken care of as part of your support in the overall divorce settlement package.

Adapted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.

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