Understanding Military 20/20/20 Entitlement

Posted on Jan 29, 2024 by Katie Carter

Military 20/20/20 status is an incredible benefit for qualifying spouses, because it entitles you to permanent military healthcare.  For many women, health care is one of the most important issues in a divorce – in no large part because, for non-20/20/20 spouses and literally any civilian, there is no way to qualify for permanent, lifetime healthcare coverage.

Private healthcare coverage is notoriously expensive, and having access to healthcare benefits as part of your employment is uncertain.  The quality of coverage can vary dramatically from employer to employer, and many positions do not trigger healthcare coverage options at all.

Insurance for women is a tricky issue, too.  When we’re of ‘childbearing’ years, that’s a potential issue for health insurance companies.  Having a baby in this country is expensive, so that potential – regardless of whether you intend to have children – is reflected in premiums.  When you’re older, you likely have plenty of other pre-existing conditions, which can also make it difficult to get insurance.  On the private market, all of these things are – or, at least, can be – issues.

Keeping your military TriCare coverage is so much simpler, not to mention free. But you have to qualify under military rules – not Virginia rules.

Being a 20/20/20 spouse is a cool thing because it’s free for you AND it’s free for your ex-husband.  It’s not a bargaining chip or something he can try to deny you; if you are entitled to it, you are entitled to it and it neither costs him a penny nor requires his approval.  If you get it, you get it.

But do you get it?  That can be a tricky question.  It shouldn’t be, but… it is.

Keep in mind that the 20/20/20 benefit is a military entitlement.  It has nothing to do with state laws.  Unlike many of the other things I talk about here, this has nothing to do with Virginia at all – so there’s nothing I can do to impact or affect your entitlement.  I can’t ask a judge to order it; I can’t get your ex-husband to sign a document allowing you to access it.  You are either entitled to it or not, and the military sets the specific parameters required to determine your entitlement.

Military 20/20/20 Entitlement

It sounds simple.  You are a military 20/20/20 spouse if you were (1) married to your spouse for at least 20 years, (2) his creditable military service spanned at least 20 years, and (3) at least twenty of those years overlap.

Though I’m speaking in terms of years, entitlement to military benefits – retirement, etc – is measured in terms of months.  In a separation agreement or court order, we count the exact number of months that you were married.

It is possible that you have been married for twenty years, but that either he did not serve a full twenty years or, even more likely, that those twenty years did not overlap.  And they must overlap perfectly!

Let’s look at an example.

Andrea and Scott were married in November of 1989.  Scott joined the military in February of 1989, and then he retired – after an exactly 20 year career – in February 2009.  Scott and Andrea separated in 2012.

The math here is simple, especially because Scott’s career spanned exactly 20 years.  But, even though we talk about years, it’s a matter of months.

Andrea was not married to Scott in February, when he joined.  They weren’t married until November.  So, there’s a period of 9 months here that are unaccounted for, which means that she doesn’t qualify as a 20/20/20 spouse.

What’s more, because Scott has already retired from active duty service – and retired for years before the parties separated – there’s nothing that can be done.  If Scott had stayed in service until November, Andrea would have been able to access the 20/20/20 benefits.  But he didn’t and now he’s retired, so the door is permanently closed.  There is nothing she or he can do to change the situation.

20/20/20 status is measured in months, not years.

This isn’t like when you file a federal tax return.  Did you know that if you have a baby by December 31st, you can claim that child as a dependent on your taxes for the entirety of that year?

Being a 20/20/20 spouse doesn’t work that way.  Just because Andrea and Scott, in this example, married the same year that Scott joined the military, Andrea doesn’t get the benefit of having been married the entire year.  That’s just not how these entitlements are measured.

In order to be a 20/20/20 spouse, you’d have to have been married for a total of 240 months – and each of those 240 months must have been while he was serving in the military.  If Andrea had 239 overlapping months, it still wouldn’t have been enough.  The military requires the full 240 months – or 20 years – of marriage OVERLAPPING with the active duty service member’s military service.  There’s no provision for rounding up.

It’s different, anyway – the military versus the IRS.  I don’t know why; in any case, none of this is up to me.  I’m not a policymaker or even a policy enforcer.  If anything, I’d consider myself a sort of policy informer.  The messenger.

There are very few conversations as painful as the one informing someone – especially someone who thought she did qualify as a 20/20/20 spouse – that she does not qualify for these benefits.

Though none of this about me or my feelings, please understand that I hate it, too.  It sucks to have to tell Andrea that she’s just 9 months short of receiving an incredibly valuable benefit.

Military families are unique in a lot of ways and, though its not uncommon for a wife to curtail her career and/or professional and educational goals in the support of her husband, the constant relocation can make maintaining a job or career difficult – if not entirely impossible.

It’s important to understand your rights and entitlements in the context of both military and state-specific laws.  In this case, for Andrea, I might argue that it makes sense for her to ask for more in terms of spousal support or some other benefit in order to offset the cost of long-term health insurance.  It’s not, though, Scott’s fault, per se, that Andrea isn’t entitled to 20/20/20 status – and, if she had been, it would have been at no cost to him – but there’s no question that this changes Andrea’s future dramatically.

To the extent that she cut back her career or made other sacrifices for the sake of the family, it might be worth it to at least try to negotiate an additional benefit somewhere else.  The cost of health insurance long term is significant, especially if you were thinking that you’d qualify for 20/20/20 status but fall only a few months short.

Keep in mind, too, that 20/20/15 status is also a thing – though nowhere near as beneficial.  It does entitle a former military spouse to one year of TriCare coverage.  It’s not forever, but it’s something, and it at least gives you a chance to figure out what your next steps might look like.  Still, the earlier you learn about your entitlements the better, because you can make plans and decisions for the future.

For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia military divorce lawyers for women only, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.