Divorce Law for Members of
the Military and Their Families

By: Bradley Coates
Special to the
Oahu Island News

Hawaii is home to thousands of military personnel who are frequently forced to face the reality of divorce. The reasons for military divorce are varied, but the special stresses of military life can often lead to marital breakdown and dissolution. These include non-traditional work hours, long deployments overseas (as occurred during Operation Desert Storm and now with the building campaign against Iraq) and for younger couples, the hardship of living far away from family and friends.

The first place a soldier or spouse most often turns to for advice in a divorce matter is the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG). The law firm of Coates & Frey maintains close relationships with several of Hawaii’s JAG staff attorneys – they indicate that they counsel 30 to 40 people a week regarding divorce.

Hawaii seems to be particularly divorce-prone for the military. Typically, the JAG officers hold two on-base briefings per week – one for only soldiers, and one for only dependents or non-military personnel. JAG will counsel and/or represent either party, but not both. Once representation of one begins, the other party must be referred to another military base or private counsel for representation.

JAG will discuss key issues such as abuse (something the military does not tolerate); the revocation of general powers of attorney – especially if divorce is imminent; housing; support (BAQ or dependents’ allowance will be paid to the non-military spouse until the divorce is final by Court-filed Decree); use of military I.D. cards; travel and relocation possibilities.

It is not mandatory that the military personnel or the spouse first seek military assistance as a prerequisite to filing a divorce action. One could simply proceed directly to a private civilian divorce attorney. Regardless of which approach (private lawyers or JAG) the divorcing parties select, there are some important principles which all divorcing military members and their dependent spouses should know.

1) After twenty (20) years of marriage overlapping military service, the dependent spouse should be eligible to receive service related benefits such as health care and commissary/exchange privileges. If you are near this milestone, you should consider delaying finalization of the divorce to reach the required twenty (20) year point.

2) Military dependents, including spouses and children, may be entitled to some military benefits after divorce, such as paid relocation to the mainland or dependent ID cards with shopping/medical privileges.

3) Regarding military retirement cases, the military has particularly stringent requirements for ex-spouses to qualify as a recipient of military retirement benefits. You must send a copy of the divorce decree that has been certified within the preceding ninety (90) days to DFAS. The military may also require additional information and filings at time of retirement, and it is your responsibility to provide such additional information in a timely manner.

4) There are special requirements pertaining to the Survivor’s Benefit Plan (SBP). If your spouse’s military retirement includes SBP and you then get a divorce, you must have the SBP election modified by sending the appropriate forms to DFAS within one (1) year of the divorce in order to receive benefits as a former spouse. Failure to do so will result in your disqualification to receive SBP benefits.

5) Finally, you must remember that if you waive a right to your spouse’s retirement you are in all likelihood waiving your right to any of his/her early retirement benefits and/or lump sum payments as well.

Thomas D. Farrell, the litigation director at Coates & Frey, also heads the firm’s ever-growing Military Family Practice Group. Tom had a busy year last year – he was promoted to full colonel in the Army Reserve, received his Masters Degree from the Army War College and became the first (and only) attorney in Hawaii to be certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy and recognized by the Supreme Court of Hawaii as a Certified Family Law Specialist.#1 Nonetheless, Tom and the firm’s other nine attorneys are always available to respond to requests for information and assistance which we receive from our firm’s many JAG colleagues and our many service member clients.

Bradley A. Coates, J.D., has been a practicing divorce attorney in Honolulu for over 20 years. He has been selected as Honolulu’s Best Divorce Lawyer and is the founder of Coates & Frey, Hawaii’s largest family law firm. Mr. Coates wrote an award- winning book on the divorce process entitled Divorce with Decency: The Complete How-To Handbook and Survivor’s Guide to the Legal, Emotional, Economic, and Social Issues.

This article contains only “general” information and readers should not take any actions based on the summarized information contained herein. Phone: 524-4854 or visit www.coatesandfrey.com.

1 Mr. Farrell is certified by the Supreme Court of Hawaii and the National Board of Trial Advocacy. The Supreme Court of Hawaii grants Hawaii certification only to lawyers in good standing who have successfully completed a specialty program accredited by the American Bar Association.