Military Divorce Minefields – Part 1 – Military vs Civilian Plans

I know writing this week’s article is going to be difficult.  I might even regret doing it.  Who knows?  It’s a touchy subject and I know full well that no matter what I do I will make someone mad at me (or, at least, at what I say).  I’m going to write it anyway.  The information needs to be put out there.  Deep breath.  “Damn the torpedoes.  Full speed ahead.”


Let’s talk about divorces in the military.  How do they affect service members, former spouses, their families, their money, and their benefits?  I am going to leave the more personal bits out of the discussion and talk mainly about pay, benefits, and survivorship.


We are going to get into some legal territory here. Let me say up front that I am not a lawyer or even a paralegal.  I do have a great deal of experience in this area from a retirement services perspective, though, and I will give examples of items with which I have dealt.  Let’s call this an “experienced layman’s point-of-view” supplemented by a great deal of research.  You can find several of the sites I visited in the references section below.


I certainly cannot go into all the different circumstances which could arise during a military divorce.  I will hit some of the most important highlights and describe them as best I can.  If I do get anything blatantly wrong, I welcome constructive criticism and correction.


Differences Between Military and Civilian Retirement Plans


First, let’s define what military retirement is not.  For civilian lawyers who are not regularly involved with military divorces, this is easily the most difficult to comprehend.  Civilian retirement plans are managed under a law called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (or ERISA, for short).  ERISA defines the participation rules, funding, and vesting requirements for most pension plans in private industry.  Civilian lawyers are often very comfortable with how ERISA functions.  The problem here is military retirement does not operate in any way like an ERISA plan.


Just how different can civilian and military pension be, you may ask?  Well, here are several questions I was asked about a National Guardsman’s pension from a family law lawyer familiar with ERISA.

  1. What is the current balance of the member’s pension fund?
  2. What is the member’s contribution to the fund?
  3. What is the buy-out (or “lump-sum”) value of the fund?
  4. What portion of the fund was acquired during the marital period and what portion was vested on the date of divorce?
  5. Who is the asset manager of the pension fund?


See what I mean?  Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of military retirements can see that none of these questions can be answered satisfactorily.  The differences are just too great.  For example, while there is such a thing as the Military Retirement Fund on a macro level, there is no personal account for each service member.  There is no buy-out or lump-sum option (at least before the Blended Retirement System came to be and even then it would be difficult to calculate while the member is still serving).


The military pension, simply put, is a defined-benefit plan.  This means the member receives a certain standard amount or percentage of pay for each year of service.  Vesting, the point at which the benefit is definitely yours and cannot (usually) be taken away, is twenty years of qualifying service.  The same cliff vesting requirement holds true for most of the other benefits involved in military retirement, such as Tricare coverage and use of on-post facilities.


This all-or-nothing approach to pension eligibility is called “cliff vesting” and can be difficult for civilian attorneys to understand at first.  They are much more comfortable with the three to five-year vesting requirements of ERISA plans. Now throw in the unique nature of being a reserve retiree and you can practically see that lawyer’s head explode.  I recommend wrapping their heads in duct tape before telling them you’re a reservist so – when their heads do explode – you’ll at least have all the pieces in one place.


Now let’s take a quick look at how a division of pay and benefits would be accomplished.  Unless the terms of division are laid out in the divorce decree itself, division of assets usually occurs by way of a document called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (or QDRO – often pronounced Quah-Dro, for short).  A QDRO works for most divisible assets but isn’t necessarily best for military pensions.  Since military retirements are not “qualified plans” like IRAs and 401(k)s, but are statutory programs (meaning created and managed exclusively by federal law), it is best to use a Military Pension Division Order (MPDO).  I will include sample language for an MPDO in the references section of this article.


Here is an interesting sidebar I have seen repeatedly over the years.  On several occasions, I have read divorce decrees which ordered the service member to keep Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) policies on themselves with the ex-spouse as the beneficiary.  The decree even mandated the member to keep this policy after leaving service.  There is some good news for the member, though.  A Supreme Court decision from 1981 (Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. 46 (1981)) declared courts cannot enforce orders requiring SGLI coverage.

That’s all for this week.  Next week I will cover a touchy subject, the division of retired pay in a divorce.  Join me for that.

Thanks for joining me today and, of course, thank you for your service.


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Air Force
DFAS-Indianapolis Center
Attn.: Garnishments Section
8899 East 56th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46249-0875
Phone: 1-888-332-7411
Fax Coversheet:
Fax: 866-401-5849
*Utilizing coversheet  expedites processing time*

DFAS-Indianapolis Center
Attn.: Garnishments Section
8899 East 56th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46249-0865
Phone: 1-888-332-7411
Fax Coversheet:
Fax: 866-401-5849
*Utilizing coversheet  expedites processing time*

Commanding Officer (SES)
Coast Guard Pay and Personnel Center

444 Southeast Quincy Street
Topeka, KS 66683-3591
Phone: 785-339-2200
Fax: 785-339-3780
US Coast Guard Website (

Marine Corps
DFAS-Cleveland Center
1240 East 9th Street
Cleveland, OH 44199-2005
Phone: 888-332-7411
Fax: 216-367-3614; DSN: 580-7011

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
NOAA Commissioned Personnel Center
1315 East-West Highway, Rm. 12100
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3282

DFAS-Cleveland Center
1240 East 9th Street
Cleveland, OH 44199-2005
Phone: 888-332-7411
Fax: 216-367-3666; DSN: 580-7603

Public Health Service
U.S. Public Health Service
Division of Commissioned Corps Personnel and Readiness
Commissioned Corps Compensation
1101 Wootton Parkway, Plaza Level, Suite 100
Rockville, MD  20852
Phone: 240-276-8799
Fax:  240-276-8817

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