Military divorce in the COVID-19 era: 3 snags to watch

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Thomas Wright 22/07/2020

Beyond the staggering physical toll of the coronavirus pandemic, family relationships are grappling with a daunting new set of challenges. Throw in a military career and divorce, and the situation becomes particularly tenuous.

For military personnel, COVID-19 precautions can mean less accessibility, complex travel arrangements, limited childcare and decreased visibility about the future. Following are three of those concerns, along with a few suggestions for approaching them.

LINING UP SCHEDULES: COURT AND KIDS

The demands of a military career have always included the potential for long absences, distant travel and unpredictable situations, which in divorce complicates communications, planning court dates, or simply spending time with children.

COVID-19 has made some of those absences even longer, and pandemic-related policies can change often amid attempts to combat a new and capricious virus.

In mid-June, the Department of Defense finally lifted Virginia travel restrictions, which essentially had frozen travel for uniformed personnel, including personal and non-official travel. The DoD has been updating its restrictions based on coronavirus infection data in specific areas; an uptick in infections could bring back restrictions.

In addition, all service members deploying outside the country in most cases must complete a 14-day restriction of movement — basically, staying home and limiting close contact with others — before deployment. When they return, a screening determines whether they need another 14-day restriction of movement.

Such requirements can make it difficult to drive to pick up children or arrange meetings, in court or otherwise.

It’s crucial to understand military law when dealing with these complications.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act offers protections for those serving on active duty. A spouse who receives divorce papers typically has to respond within a specified time frame, but the act extends civil court or administrative proceedings if duty prevents attendance, and it offers protections from default judgments for failure to respond or failure to appear.

In Virginia, the local court may postpone divorce proceeding during all of the active duty and somewhat beyond. However, the service member can waive that right in order to move things along. The court can in certain circumstances choose to accept a deposition or affidavit if the service member isn’t available to testify in court.

Concerning spending time with children, it may be possible if necessary to delegate visitation to someone with whom the child has a close relationship.

CHILD SUPPORT AND ALIMONY

The halt to travel threw many in the military into holding patterns regarding orders to move to different bases. While those already en route were allowed to complete their journeys, others found themselves in limbo.

Once travel restrictions were lifted, moves could begin again in earnest, but a move also can change allowances or other pay given to a service member — which translates into different amounts for child support and alimony. Any alterations require legal paperwork, and the sooner that gets filed, the better.

SPLITTING POSESSIONS

To handle a divorce in Virginia courts, one of the people involved must have lived in the state for at least six months before filing for divorce. For military personnel, Virginia counts the six months prior to being stationed elsewhere.

Beyond typical Virginia laws about splitting up property in divorce, the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act allows courts to divide military retirement benefits between the service member and spouse based on the length of the marriage. If the couple was married for at least 10 years during active duty, the spouse can receive those payments directly from the government.

Coronavirus-related payments for military, stimulus, unemployment or other reasons could become a relevant factor.

Given the complexities of military law — which may be governed by both federal and state mandates — and the quickly changing policies related to the pandemic, seek out a lawyer who specializes in military law, keeps a finger on the pulse of current events, and can advocate for you. We at Invictus Law are ready to answer your questions, find solutions, and give you peace of mind during this time of uncertainty. Please contact us online or at (757) 337-3737 to schedule your consultation. We are happy to provide appointments via phone or video chat comply with social distancing recommendations.

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