Military life can include a number of unique challenges not faced by most civilians. Frequent relocation, uncertain deployment schedules, and often dangerous work can make family life difficult. Should that difficulty lead to a decision for a military couple to seek out a divorce, those same factors play a significant role in asset division and child custody determinations.
Even basic considerations, such as which court should hear the divorce proceedings for military spouses, can be extremely complex due to the nature of military lifestyles and heavy regulation by federal and military law. Resolving these issues can require legal expertise which can only be offered by an attorney who is knowledgeable about military divorces. In particular, the Leave and Earnings Statement (“LES”), a detailed invoice of military earnings and benefits, can be difficult to read and incorporate into a divorce settlement.
Jurisdiction: In most divorces, deciding where to bring an action is simple – the state where the parties live.
However, imagine a common scenario for military families: a young man from California joins the U.S. Air Force and enters the Air Force Academy in Colorado. While there, the soldier meets his future wife, graduates, then moves to Glendale to live near Luke Air Force Base. The couple decides to end their marriage, but just after the divorce proceedings begin, the soldier is deployed to Afghanistan. Suddenly, deciding where the family is “domiciled” becomes much more complicated.
Further complicating matters is the fact that there may be multiple answers to the question of which is the appropriate court in which to file an action. That is because there are different rules governing a court’s ability to divorce the couple, make custody determinations, or divide property (including a military pension). It is imperative that you understand these complexities before you file or respond to an action
The Service Members Civil Relief Act: This act, commonly referenced as SSCRA, allows members of the Armed Forces to apply for a “stay” of some judicial proceedings while they are on active duty. The provision provides some protection for service members (including activated National Guard or reserve troops) whose official duties would otherwise prevent them from participating in litigation. Whether you are seeking a divorce from a member of the military, or you are a uniformed serviceperson, understanding the SSCRA can be an important part of your case.
Visitation and family care plans: Because military life often includes frequent relocations and other travel, creating plans for custody and parenting time can be tricky. Arizona law (A.R.S. § 25-411) provides some guidance for military families in addition to protecting the rights of servicepersons whose work may require them to modify their custody plans in various ways. The Arizona statute is long and detailed, however, so applying it to an individual case is not always easy.
Family support: Understanding exactly how much income a service member has is key in determining family support (child support and spousal maintenance). This requires reading and understanding the LES given monthly to members of the military. Base pay, skill pay, hazardous duty pay, disability pay, and other bonuses may play a significant role in determining the amounts of spousal maintenance, child support, and other financial arrangements.
Pension, disability, and other benefits: Military pension is difficult to decode even without trying to fit it into a divorce settlement. Because military divorces are regulated by both federal and state laws, each component of the pension (retirement, disability, etc.) may be governed by a different law.
For example, recent changes to Arizona laws protect a veteran’s service-related disability benefits from judicial property division. The definition of service-related disability benefits comes from Title 38 of the United States Code – referring back and forth between state and federal laws is an arduous task and finding an attorney to help navigate through this issue is critical.
Appreciating the unique aspects of a military divorce can require years of legal practice. Even for a seasoned divorce attorney, frequent changes to divorce, custody, and military laws at both the state and federal levels offer unique challenges in each new case.