New approach taken to changing spouse-protection act
Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 50, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.
By Tom Philpott
For more than a decade, initiatives to change the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act have resonated on Capitol Hill like dishes being smashed. Most lawmakers heard all the hollering and just avoided it.
Given past difficulties modifying the USFSPA, a 1982 law that allows military retired pay to be divided as property in divorce proceedings, advocates for retirees have changed their strategy for the 108th Congress.
A bill to be introduced this month by Rep. Cass Ballenger, the North Carolina Republican who carried the banner for divorced military members last Congress, replaces goals Congress has rejected routinely with a new limit on the duration of ex-spouse payments.
The earlier bill, HR 1983, proposed four major changes to: stop division of retired pay with former spouses who remarry; end "windfalls" for ex-spouses by basing their share of retired pay on the member's rank and time served when divorced, not at retirement; set a time limit on ex-spouses to seek a share of retired pay; block courts from dividing disability pay in divorce except for child support. All changes would have been retroactive.
Ballenger's new bill, described in a letter to House colleagues seeking co-sponsors, still aims to bring "a proper balance" to the USFSPA but targets fewer changes at old divorce agreements.
Retired Navy Capt. Frank Ault of the American Retirees Association, a group formed in response to the USFSPA to lobby for pro-retiree changes, helped to shape the new strategy. He said ARA and most service associations are ready to face some hard realities. One is that Congress won't enact a bill that re-opens tens of thousands of settled divorce cases.
A second reality, he said, is that Congress won't agree to stop retired pay for ex-spouses on the basis that they have remarried.
"We're backing away from attacking remarriage for existing divorces," Ault said. "It's always been at the top of our list, and at the top of the ex-spouses' list to defend against. We've been told (by lawmakers) to quit beating it to death."
But a new feature this year would limit the length of retired payments to an ex-spouse for marriages that lasted fewer than 20 years while in service. Payments would run long enough to match the marriage. For example, if the couple was married 12 years of a service career, an ex-spouse would get a share in retired pay for 12 years after the divorce.
"Our new concept," Ault said, "says, 'Yes, both served. But there is a vast difference in the nature and duration of service.' The ex-spouse's obligation to the member ceases at divorce, as does any obligation she might have to the government. However, the member's responsibility continues, both to the government and, if he's a victim of the law, to his ex-spouse."
Ex-spouse payments would only last a lifetime if the marriage survived 20 years of service life. For shorter marriages that dissolve after the bill's enactment, ex-spouse payments would end after running the length of the marriage, or upon remarriage, whichever occurs first.
"We want to circumscribe this package of property that goes to the ex-spouse," Ault said.
Ex-spouse groups can be expected to resist these changes and push for their own reforms. One sure to be raised is relaxation of the law's 20-20-20 rule, which requires that a marriage last 20 years while a member is in service for an ex-spouse to gain medical benefits and base privileges.
Potential recipients of the new Combat Related Special Compensation are still months away from learning how to apply for the benefits and who specifically will be eligible.
Defense officials are brainstorming regulations now that will govern CRSC, which can exceed $2,000 a month for the most severely disabled. The program begins June 1 with initial payments starting in July. But draft rules won't be ready for review by the services, and perhaps by Congress, until at least mid-March.
CRSC is a compromise born of efforts last year to lift a ban on concurrent receipt of both full military retirement and disability compensation for service-related injuries or illnesses. With President Bush threatening to veto more costly initiatives, Congress agreed to compensate two groups of retirees for the dollar-for-dollar reduction in retired pay that occurs when receive VA compensation.
The two groups of retirees, all with 20 or more years of active service, are either disabled by wounds for which they received the Purple Heart, or have combat-related disabilities that are rated at least 60 percent disabling.
Qualifying disabilities can be from combat, hazardous duty, combat-related training or "instrumentalities of war" such as accidental gunfire or sickness from fumes, gases or explosions.
Officials plan to distribute applications and full CRSC details through retiree newsletters and a Web site. Until then, retirees don't need to do anything except wait for the forms and instructions for filling them out.
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