David S.C. Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the Pentagon wants a “balanced package of proposed improvements for both military members and former spouses.”
This would include prohibiting a court from ordering service members to begin paying a portion of their future retired pay before they have actually retired and setting a formula for dividing retired pay based upon the rank and years of service at the time of divorce — provisions generally seen as helping service members more than former spouses.
For former spouses, the Pentagon is asking that the Defense Finance and Accounting Service be authorized to make direct payments for any court-ordered division. Current law allows direct payments only when a couple was married for at least 10 years.
Also in the plan is a proposal that would allow a retiree to divide survivor benefits between a current and former spouse. Currently, the benefits must go to only one person.
Chu mentioned the changes in testimony delivered March 28 to the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, but the initiatives were not discussed at the hearing, which focused on the overall military personnel budget.
The proposed legislation is the result of a 2001 study of the Former Spouses’ Protection Act that the Defense Department conducted under congressional mandate.
The report was given to Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which is one reason why the report and its recommendations received little attention.
But timing was only part of the reason for the nearly six years of subsequent inaction. Since the law was enacted in 1982, Congress has been reluctant to make any changes, even to fix acknowledged flaws, because of the inherent tensions on both sides in dealing with property division resulting from divorce.
Last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee was sympathetic to some of the Pentagon’s proposed changes, but the House Armed Services Committee balked at making any significant revisions, so they were omitted from the final 2007 Defense Authorization Act.
The American Retirees Association, a group formed to fight the law, claims there have been 23 amendments to the Act introduced since 1982, usually without public debate. By the group’s count, 18 of the changes benefited the spouse and one helped retirees.
In addition, four bills that called for changes in the law have been introduced since 1990, but no hearings have been held on the proposals.
Congressional aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said lawmakers are highly reluctant to propose any changes in the law for fear of angering either military retirees or divorced spouses.
In the House, where lawmakers face the voters every two years, few politicians have been willing to risk being confronted at town hall meetings by any parties in a divorce, aides said.
There is no reason to believe that passing the Pentagon’s recommended changes will be any easier this year, aides said.
The Military Coalition, a group of more than 30 military-related associations, endorses some changes in the law, including those proposed by the Defense Department.
In addition to the four initiatives mentioned by Chu, the coalition’s 2008 legislative plan would permit a court to order former spouses to pay the premiums for their own survivor benefits through deductions in their share of retired pay, and would permit former spouses to waive survivor coverage if they would rather receive more pay while a retiree is living.
Also in the coalition’s legislative plan is a request that the military do a better job of educating and informing service members and their spouses about the law so they are not caught by surprise if they divorce.