When you walk down the aisle and recite vows in front of friends and family, you typically don’t have divorce on your mind. However, the current divorce rate in the United States still stands at roughly 44%. Although the rate is falling from its nearly 50% high in the 1990s, experts say this may have more to do with fewer people getting married than it has to do with the divorce rate overall.
Getting divorced when you’re in the military is another ball of wax. The divorce rate for military members tends to be higher than that of civilians. This high divorce rate could be due to a number of reasons: long periods of time spent apart, financial issues, pressure to marry young and have children, and mental health issues that may arise from tours of service.
When getting a divorce within a military marriage, unique challenges can materialize. Even though no one expects to get divorced, it can still happen, so it helps to be prepared.
Chas Sampson, the founder of Seven Principles, has experience with military divorce, personally and professionally. His insight currently helps military members wade through the muddy waters of a marriage dissolving.
Why do Military Couples Get Divorced?
Marriage in the military faces is often far different than most civilian marriages. Soldiers and their spouses experience things that civilians never have to be concerned with.
“Distance is always a factor,” explains Sampson. “The couple may be stationed in two different locations if they are both serving, or one spouse could be deployed to a combat zone.”
The frequency of separation can take its toll on even the strongest of relationships. Although couples may believe they are prepared for spending long stretches of time apart when they marry, the reality of the situation can be daunting. According to the USO, the average military deployment can last six to twelve months. For fledgling marriages, the separation can be the kiss of death.
Many people in the military marry young. According to recent research, male military members are far more likely to marry young than their civilian counterparts. More than half of male military members are married by 25. However, according to the CDC, the younger a couple may be, the greater the chances of their marriage failing. Because military marriage trends young, that contributes to the higher percentage of divorces among military couples.
One reason military members may choose to marry before they are ready may be the extra “married pay” that military members receive. The problem creeps in when the distance and possible immaturity negatively affect the relationship. If the couple decides to divorce, the loss of the additional pay military members receive for being married could cause financial hardship for both parties.
What Makes Military Divorce Different?
Military divorces differ from civilian divorces in many ways. It makes sense for people looking to dissolve a marriage in the military to seek legal counsel early in the process. Navigating the complicated nature of military divorces without sound legal advice can often spell disaster.
Issues of jurisdiction and residency can further convolute an already complicated matter. Even though separate states dictate divorce law with both civilian and military divorces, those who are serving — or did serve — and are seeking a divorce need to be aware of how their state of residence affects their case.
Typically, the state where the military member has their legal residence is the state that will decide the correct division of the military pension upon divorce. Retaining a talented lawyer will help you. They will know the laws as they apply to residency, which can sometimes be complicated when serving in the military. Retention of legal counsel can also be a special consideration in and of itself. You will want to hire someone who is well-versed in military matters.
If children are a factor, deployments can muddle the custody process. Domestic violence or adultery incidents are also treated differently within the military justice system. Alongside children and custody, several other aspects of marriage considered standard in a civilian divorce settlement can be incredibly difficult to navigate.
When navigating a military divorce, there are some “do’s and don’ts” to consider. Decorum is held to a high standard in the military, which applies to military members whose marriages are failing as well. The concept of propriety may be difficult to grasp amid something as emotionally draining as a divorce, but it’s something that everyone involved must keep in mind.
“Avoid getting the leadership involved as it could damage your image,” advises Sampson. Working with military leaders is not like standing around the water cooler at a civilian job talking negatively about your soon-to-be-ex. When reporting for duty, one needs to leave personal woes at home.
It would behoove both parties to forego personal insults or derogatory statements. It is not becoming behavior of a soldier or officer to deride their spouse in public, and doing so cuts at that expectation of decorum placed on military members. As such, Sampson suggests keeping your impending divorce as private as possible.
“Avoid sharing the divorce with fellow service members,” he says. “Keep this process as private and quick as possible.”
Best Advice (From Someone Who Has Been There)
When you decide to get a divorce, you may get opinions from your parents, legal counsel, or friends you choose to confide in. Having experience with the rocky road of divorce, Sampson has some advice for those considering ending their marriage while serving.
“Costs can get out of control when mired down in a legal situation,” Sampson remarks, “so I suggest finding ways to mitigate them. Hopefully, the divorce is uncontested, which can help alleviate costly court battles.”
Finding common ground amid even the most amicable divorces can be complicated. After all, if you always agreed with your spouse, you likely wouldn’t be getting a divorce.
“Try to seek marital counseling and third-party interventions to create solutions to settle your differences,” suggests Sampson.
It’s also essential, as in civilian divorces, to protect your assets. Military-specific rules, such as the 10/10 rule, specify how much retirement pay a military spouse may be entitled to. Having competent counsel well-versed in military law on your side will help with an equitable and fair division of assets following the divorce.
“Lastly, it may be a good idea to reconsider getting married at all!” Sampson says rather cheekily.
While hindsight is 20/20, people in the military and their significant others may want to consider the military divorce rate and the complicated nature of military divorce before heading down the aisle.
Divorce is no fun for anyone, and can be a tricky legal undertaking even in the most ideal situations. Military divorces are fraught with special legal considerations, rules, and circumstances. By educating oneself and retaining the right help, one can navigate the potentially rocky road of military divorce to the best of their ability and come out on the other side relatively unscathed.
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