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How fair is fair? Good Intentions Gone Bad (Part I).

Dateline: 04/17/99

In 1982, Congress passed the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA). This seemingly innocent attachment to the 1983 Military Appropriation Bill ran through the entire legislative process with little publicity, fanfare, or debate. Its purpose, proponents said, was to provide some degree of financial protection to the dedicated wives of military members. Many such ex-wives had been seen daily on morning talk shows, telling tails of woe about being dumped penniless by their unappreciative husbands after years of hard sacrifice.

At the time, there appeared to be some valid need for protection -- at least for the wives of some commissioned officers. Before 1989, officer's wives were discouraged from having a career of their own; instead they were expected to attend officer's wives club functions, donate time to charity, and be available to support their husband's career by attending and hosting traditional social events. (This was never a problem with the enlisted ranks, as just to make ends meet on low military enlisted pay, wives routinely had separate careers of their own.)

So, the elective heads of Congress nodded solemnly, determined to correct this perceived practice of gross injustice. The USFSPA, sponsored by Rep Patricia Schroeder, was born. Ms. Schroeder stated that the purpose of the act was to provide some degree of "fairness" to the ex-wives of military members. The act would allow (not mandate) state divorce courts to consider military retired pay as community property. "Guidelines" were published within the legislation, recommending certain restrictions such as minimum length of marriage, circumstances of divorce, maximum allowable division, etc.

Sounds pretty "fair," right? Read on:

From California: A Marine Corps Staff Sergeant, returning to his duty station in Twenty-Nine Palms after serving in combat during Operation Desert Storm, planned to retire with 20 years honorable military service. Upon his arrival home, his wife of 19 years was found cohabiting with another man. In May 1991, the spouse abandoned the service member and their three children and filed for no-fault divorce in California. The divorce was final in January 1992. The military member was ordered to give 50% of the property of the marriage to the former spouse, and 47.5% of his military retired pay.

From Alaska: An Air Force Master Sergeant served 20 years in the military, including two tours in Vietnam. He and his wife were married the final 16 years of his military service. While stationed in Alaska, and entering his last year before retirement, he was sued for divorce by his wife (who had found a boyfriend) and evicted him from his home. The court awarded the ex-spouse 40% of the service member's retired pay as property, and an additional 27% as child support. After taxes, the retired service member receives approximately $130 monthly. The former spouse was employed at $34,000 per year; her live-in boyfriend was employed at $26,000 per year.

From California: A Navy Chief Petty Officer (E-7), Vietnam Veteran, was divorced in 1978 after 11 years of marriage. At the time of divorce, real property was awarded along with child support. In 1991, the military member retired as a Master Chief Petty Officer with 30 years of service. At that time, the former spouse returned to court for division of retired pay and was awarded 28% payable at the E-9 rate. At the time of this award, the former spouse was married to her fourth husband.

There are literally thousands of horror stories out there. Military veterans, having honorably served their country for 20 or 30 years, are being unjustly forced to sacrifice not only half, but in many cases a majority of their military retired pay, regardless of the circumstances of the divorce.

Next week in part II, I'll let you know exactly what's wrong with the FSPA and what can be done to fix it.

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