Military Divorce and the “20/20/20 Rule”

American Flag, military
We’re grateful for the sacrifices of all our service men and women.

My first exposure to military divorce came not as an attorney, but rather as a child raised on a military base for most of my formative years. Any “Army/Navy/Air Force/Marine/Coast Guard Brat” can attest that there are a number of stressors associated with “base life.” Divorce was commonplace, though never easy.

Base life comes with benefits beyond unity of purpose, a sense of community and pride. There are also some surprising financial perks as well. Reduced cost housing is a well known benefit of living on a military reservation, but base life also has reduced-cost health insurance, entertainment and shopping. Military reservations are free from most state taxation, which can result in substantial savings to military families. Interestingly, one of the more hot button topics in a military divorce is whether the divorcing spouse of a service member is able to access the perks of base life.

The 20/20/20 Rule

Luckily, the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA) contains a bright line test in the so-called “20/20/20 Rule.” Basically, for a civilian spouse to receive certain benefits, the married parties must have had at least 20 years of marriage during which the service member was active for at least 20 years. I have written before about the USFSPA‘s guidelines on pension division. In addition, the USFSPA also provides requirements for former spouses to continue receiving entitlement benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, former spouses may be eligible to continue complete health care benefits under TRICARE after a divorce if certain criteria are met. With the rising costs of healthcare, this perk is becoming more and more valuable.

To receive full health insurance benefits and access to care at military medical treatment facilities, the former spouse must show that the marriage was of at least 20 years long, that the service member served for at least a 20 years, and that the two 20 year terms “overlapped” for at least 20 years. The last of these requirements is critical.

The 20/20/15 Rule

In a “20/20/15” marriage, the marriage and service term overlapped between 15 – 20 years. This entitles the former spouse full coverage for one year only. After that, reduced cost coverage through the Department of Defense is available. In most circumstances, the reduced-cost coverage is only available for a period of up to three years. Former spouses that do not meet either the 20/20/20 or 20/20/15 thresholds are generally only entitled to the reduced-cost temporary coverage.

Will I Have to Pay Sales Tax?

The 20/20/20 rule also can be used to enable a former spouse to obtain commissary (grocery and toiletries) and exchange (clothing, electronics, personal items, etc.) benefits as well. The state-tax free nature of these purchases can result in substantial savings on gifts, electronics, alcohol and tobacco purchases. Also, gasoline is often sold for lower prices on base. Divorced spouses “sponsored” by service members who remain active duty can generally retain their military-issued ID cards as well. Keep in mind that a 20/20/15 spouse is entitled to no commissary or exchange benefits.

Military Divorce

As always, a spouse in a military divorce with questions about what to expect regarding benefits should consult with competent counsel. For those divorcing a service member or former service member, consult with both civilian and military (“JAG”) counsel. Knowing your rights in advance can help ease make a difficult and painful process.

Best to you and yours,
Ron