How are Virginia military divorces different?

Posted on Jun 19, 2017 by Katie Carter

How are Virginia military divorces different?

If you’re active duty military, retired active duty military, you’re married to an active duty military service member, or even if you’re married to a retired active duty military service member, there will be some components of your divorce that are a little bit different than traditional civilian divorce.

But you probably already know (or at least suspect) that much.  Right? I’m not military, and, in fact, no one in my family has been in the military since the draft, so I’m not familiar with everything military related—but I can tell you I am very familiar with the ins and outs of military divorce.  We have to be, of course, being located where we are – in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  There are so many military bases around here that we have a very large number of military clients. If you go to the JAG office, you may get conflicting information, so you should definitely tread carefully there.  You’ve probably been conditioned to think that, whatever your legal problem, the JAG office should be your first stop. Likewise, if your husband’s first stop was to go to the local JAG office, and then you tried to go, you  might have been told that the JAG office was conflicted out and couldn’t give you any advice at all.

I’ve talked to a number of women over the years who have run into this exact type of situation, and, when I talk to them, they’re always panicked about the advice that their husband has received that they weren’t able to get.  And from the JAG attorneys, of all people, who they thought would always be there to help. The thing about it is, though, that that JAG office really isn’t the appropriate place to turn for help.  Divorce and custody are two areas of law that are incredibly state specific, so to get real, honest, up to date advice about how to handle your particular situation, you’ll have to talk to an attorney who is licensed to practice in Virginia. I can understand why you’d think that your first step should be to reach out to JAG attorneys, but that’s just not the case.

JAG attorneys don’t practice state law in state courts; they practice military law.  When they join the military, they waive in under the state where they were licensed to practice, but they don’t practice law in that state—or the state where they are stationed.  Military law is entirely different, and they don’t have to take the bar in the state where they’re stationed to practice it.  So, even though they’re attorneys, and they probably know something about family law, they don’t necessarily know anything about family law or the law in Virginia specifically.   JAG attorneys aren’t supposed to give advice in divorce or custody cases.  They aren’t supposed to help draft separation agreements—though I’ve heard some horror stories of JAGS who have (with disastrous consequences).

Though you’d think that the JAG attorneys would know the most about military divorce, that’s not the case because so much of divorce law is state specific.  You really have to be a Virginia licensed attorney with military experience (as opposed to a JAG attorney) in order to represent military service members or their spouses in their divorces. So, you’re already in the right place, and you’re asking the right questions.

That’s great!  So, let’s discuss. In a lot of ways, military divorces are very similar to civilian divorces.  After all, the process is the same.   In Virginia, you either get divorced in court, or by agreement signed by the parties.  If you go to court, you ultimately let the judge decide how all the assets and liabilities in your marriage will be divided.  A court based divorce is contested, but it could be either fault based or no fault based.

If you negotiate an agreement, you and your husband will be in charge of coming up with specific terms regarding how to divide your assets and liabilities.  You can do this with an attorney, through mediation, collaborative divorce, or even do it yourself, without an attorney, if you want.  Whether you’re military or civilian, all of those things are the same. You’ll want to do some research to determine what course of action is best for you, but, ultimately, the divorce process itself will look pretty much the same as anyone else’s.

It’s a good idea to take some time to familiarize yourself with your options so that you know, moving forward, what kinds of choices you want to be making.  It’s also a good idea, if you haven’t already, to register to attend our monthly divorce seminar, Second Saturday.   If you’re still a little foggy on the details when it comes to how to actually get divorced, you’ll want to be sure to attend.  It’s a great seminar on the divorce process in Virginia, and you’ll also get an opportunity to ask your questions directly to a licensed and experienced Virginia divorce attorney.  The seminar itself doesn’t handle military divorce exclusively, but we touch on military components throughout.

So, what’s different about Virginia military divorces?

The main thing that’s different about military divorce are the types of assets to be divided.  There’s a lot of specific programs—like SBP and BAH, for example—that civilians don’t have.  You’ll want an attorney who is familiar with these programs and knows how to divide them.  It goes beyond the military pension, and also includes TSP and other similar programs. As far as calculating child and spousal support are concerned, you want an attorney who knows how to look at the LES and make sense of it—so that your numbers can be accurately calculated.   It’s not so much that the process of divorce is different when it comes to a military divorce versus a civilian divorce, but there are some assets that civilians don’t have.  In many cases, because of DFAS regulations or other military programs, there are steps we have to take to safeguard your interests that are unique to military divorce cases.  Securing your portion of the military retirement and making sure you remain a beneficiary on the SBP are important factors, and you want an experienced military divorce attorney handling your case.  Sure, the JAG attorney knows what those things are—but he may or may not be familiar with how Virginia divides these assets between the parties.

Still need more information?  We’ve written a book just for you.  Consider requesting a copy of our free book, “What Every Virginia Military Wife Needs to Know About Divorce,” by clicking here.   For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.