Most people are familiar with the statistics commonly bandied about regarding the relatively high divorce rates of military personnel. Although these rates generally are not quite as high in non-military populations, divorce remains relatively common among veterans. Questions commonly arise as to what impact the end of a marriage will have upon veterans’ military pensions. The determination of how a veteran’s pension will be treated is governed by a mixture of federal and state law.
The Impact of Federal Law on Military Pensions
On a federal level, the United States Supreme Court addressed this issue in the 1981 case of McCarty v. McCarty. In that case the court ruled that a military pension could not be considered an asset or property during a divorce action and, therefore, could not be subject to division by courts. In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court effectively put military pensions beyond the reach of the non-veteran spouse.
However, in 1982, Congress overruled the law established by the McCarty decision when it passed the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act (“USFSPA”). The USFSP authorizes divorce courts to consider military pensions as property, provided that the court has jurisdiction over the veteran’s pension.
The Impact of State Law on Military Pensions
Once jurisdiction over the military pension has been established, the USFSPA provides that the laws of the state where the divorce is pending control how the pension can be divided for purposes of property division. Many states presume that all marital property, including pensions, must be divided equally upon divorce. However, the divorce court can typically divide only the portion of the military pension earned by the former service member during the marriage. As an example, if a veteran served 20 years and was married for 10 of those 20 years, upon divorce the court can order that the veteran’s spouse is entitled to one half of one half of the pension. So, if the veteran receives a monthly pension payment of $1,000.00, one half of one half would be $250. Accordingly, the veteran would be entitled to keep $750 per month, while the former spouse would receive $250.