The first thing to understand is that there are different types of benefits available to two different types of U.S. military members.
One group is military veterans, who served in active duty and were then discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. These vets receive health, financial and burial benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The other group is known as military retirees. These individuals are also veterans, but in a different sense. They have completed at least 20 years of active service or have medically retired from the armed services due to a disability. Military retirees receive retirement pay from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) of the Department of Defense (DOD) and medical coverage through the TRICARE program.
How Divorce Affects VA Benefits
Most monetary VA benefits, such as disability compensation and veterans pensions, simply remain with the eligible veteran following a divorce because payment is based entirely on their qualifying military service. A spouse’s VA health care benefits through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) also terminate upon the dissolution of the marriage to the eligible veteran. As a rule, only current or surviving spouses and dependents factor into VA benefits decisions.
How Divorce Affects DOD Benefits
On the other hand, benefits for ex-spouses of military retirees function very differently. Because military retirement typically occurs after decades of service and/or a serious disability, it only makes sense that the civilian spouses who supported these servicemen and servicewomen would be entitled to some form of benefits even after the marriage has ended. Unlike the VA pensions mentioned above, which are designed to provide low-income veterans with supplemental income, military retirement pay functions like a pension in the traditional sense. The employer just happens to be a branch of the armed services.
In divorce proceedings, military retirement pay is handled differently in each state. Under the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA) enacted in 1982, state courts are permitted, but not required, to handle a member’s retirement pay as community property and grant a percentage to a former spouse. Some state laws treat military retirement pay as solely belonging to the member, while other states treat these funds as joint property of both the military member and the former spouse. If and how these retirement payments are divided depends on where the divorce proceedings are filed and whether this state has jurisdiction over the retirement pay. Deciding jurisdiction can be tricky, especially if both parties reside in different states, so it is wise to consult with an experienced attorney before filing.
If a former spouse divorces a member of the military who performed at least 20 years of service after at least 20 years of marriage and there was at least a 20-year overlap between the marriage and eligible service, then the former spouse may retain their full military benefits. This includes health coverage through TRICARE. However, TRICARE eligibility ends once the former spouse remarries or decides to obtain private health insurance instead.
Ultimately, VA and DOD benefits are either non-existent or minimal for former civilian spouses. These programs are designed to benefit our military members and their dependent family members. Divorce effectively terminates this relationship and therefore one’s eligibility for these government programs.