Update, 4/11/11–SB 528 was defeated by a one vote margin in the House Judiciary Committee and the deadline passed without a hearing of SB 917. We applaud the Oklahoma veterans’ groups for all their hard work on the bills, and we remain ready and willing to help them in the future. Update, 3/16/11–After a tough fight, both SB 528 and SB 917 passed out of the Oklahoma Senate on 3/15. They now head to the House of Representatives. We will keep you informed of continuing developments.
Your response to our 3/14 call to action was overwhelming, and we thank all of our members and supporters who participated. Together with you in the love of our children, Glenn Sacks, MA Executive Director, Fathers and Families Ned Holstein, M.D., M.S. Founder, Chairman of the Board, Fathers and Families _________________________________________________________________ Short Version: Veterans’ groups have contacted Fathers and Families and asked us to do a rapid campaign in support of Oklahoma’s SB 528 and SB 917–bills to protect 2.5 million active and reserve military servicemembers from spousal support abuses. We want you to email and fax a letter in support of the bill by clicking here. You only need to enter your name, email address, phone #, and city & state to participate, and we will send an email and a fax to all relevant legislators. The bills are in Oklahoma but we have been asked to haveall of our members nationwide participate–to do so, please clickhere. We also ask that you call Senate Pro Tempore Brian Bingman and his executive assistant Cheryl Boothe at (405) 521 5528 and Floor speaker Mike Schulz and his executive assistant Pam Nordstrom at (405) 521 5612 and urge them to conduct an immediate, transparent floor vote on SB 528 and SB 917. Full Version: Veterans and servicemembers suffer many abuses in family court, and Fathers and Families and its legislative representative Michael Robinson have long been leaders in helping to pass legislation to address these serious problems. What Would the Bills Do? In short, SB 528 and SB 917 will:
1) Prevent veterans who served for 20 years or more from losing as much as half their retirement pay to ex-spouses who were only married to the veteran for a few years. As Leonard Reingold of the Naval Legal Service Office explains, under the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA) and current family court practices, “The non-military spouse is entitled to receive a share of the military spouse”s military retirement no matter how long or short the marriage is, as long as the marriage existed sometime during military service.” 2) Prevent disabled veterans from having their disability compensation given to their former spouses as spousal support in a family court proceeding. Although federal law is clear, judges are often ignoring it and calculating veterans” disability compensation into divorce settlements as a divisible asset. Very often these payments are the only assets a veteran has. When judges include it as income, it creates great hardship for those veterans, who rarely have the resources to hire legal help to contest the taking of their benefits. SB 917 is similar to Arizona HB 2348, which F & F helped pass last year on the heels of our success with California Senator Rod Wright’s SB 285 in 2009. Indiana HB 1165, which was signed into law in March of 2010, is also based on SB 285. 3) Ensure that the ex-spouse collects his or her share of the former spouse’s military retirement benefit at the rate based on the rank at the end of the marriage, not subsequent rank. Let’s say that servicemember Bob and his civilian wife Jane both got married when they were 23 while Bob was an E-1 with a year served. They get divorced two years later while Bob is an E-2. Bob serves out the rest of his 20 years in the military and retires as an E-8. Incredibly, at the end of Bob’s military career, Jane gets to collect as much as half of Bob’s retirement pay based on his rank as an E-8, even though she divorced him 17 years ago when he was an E-2.
Some of the family court abuses SB 528 and SB 917 are designed to prevent are contributing to the alarming rise of veteran and disabled veteran homelessness. According to the Boston Globe, on any given night in the United States there are almost 200,000 homeless veterans, over 25% of the total homeless population. Just in the 2003-2011 war in Iraq alone, at least 60,000 servicemembers have been wounded or become mentally ill from their battlefield experiences. Veterans’ groups such have for years tried unsuccessfully to address the retirement pay issue in the USFSPA, which was passed by Congress in 1982. Oklahoma SB 528 is the closest we’ve ever come to passing legislation to resolve this problem–its passage could crack open the door to resolving the issue nationwide. Fathers and Families Is Asked to Help Break the Legislative Standoff Oklahoma State Senator Steve Russell authored and Oklahoma State Representative Gary Banz co-sponsored SB 528 and SB 917 and both passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with strong support. Last year HB 1053, a bill almost identical to SB 528, passed out of the house 68 to 38 and passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The veterans group ULSG, which has been the prime mover behind the bills, reports that divorce attorneys and other well-funded special interest groups have been engaging in behind closed doors lobbying efforts to kill the bills. In a last minute twist, a procedural move unique to Oklahoma”s legislative amendment process called “strike the title’ was implemented by Senator Brian Crain. This essentially cripples the bills. Fathers and Families is being asked to help break this deadlock with an Action Alert. Again, to participate, please clickhere. Who Supports SB 528 and SB 917? In supporting SB 528 and SB 917, Fathers and Families is joined by a wide array of prominent veterans’ groups, including: the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Gold Star Wives Of America; the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans of America, the National Military and Veterans Alliance, ULSG, and many others. Retired Major General Rita Aragon (pictured) is a vociferous supporter of SB 528 and SB 917. She explains:
I know the old saying “He/She took an arm and a leg in that divorce” is sometimes appropriate, but in a patriot’s divorce, that may actually be the case…[SB 528 brings military retirement pay] in line with other Federal entities, including Central Intelligence Agency, the Foreign Service Agency, Social Security, Survivor Benefit Plans, and our own Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System…it is not retroactive…and provides for spousal benefit based on the rank of military member at the time of divorce…it does not in any way effect child support, which is awarded separately and not involved in this issue.
Deirdre M. Parke-Holloman, Co-Director of the National Military and Veterans Alliance, is also a strong supporter of SB 528 and SB 917. She says:
[T]he Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA)…[has a] detrimental impact…on those who currently are serving and have served their country…often resulting in severe financial crises, especially for retired disabled service members and female veterans with several dependents…the very nature of military divorces has changed drastically since inception of the Act and reform or repeal is long overdue.
To read Ms. Parke-Holloman’s letter on behalf of the National Military and Veterans Alliance in support of the bills, click here. Like most legislation, SB 528 is not perfect. While the federal government provides many benefits to military spouses and former spouses, such as hiring preferences for federal jobs and wide-ranging educational opportunities, Fathers and Families is neither unaware of nor insensitive to the legitimate needs of long-term military spouses, whose career prospects can be negatively impacted by the disruptions of military life. However, to paraphrase Voltaire, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good–if passed, SB 528 will be the first legislation nationally that will significantly rein in widespread family court abuses in awarding military retirement pay. Why We Need to Act “My ex calls her half of my retirement pay, her ‘play money,’ but I certainly did not ‘play’ to earn it,” explains one retired US Navy Commander The veterans’ group ULSG has collected and documented numerous injustices related to the USFSPA on its website here. One retired US Navy Commander explains:
I served 22 years in the Navy as a pilot. I was deployed on several six month cruises and many other, shorter cruses. My now ex-wife never worked…We have one child, who is now 18. I remarried three years ago and my ex wife remarried one year ago. Her new husband is employed in his family owned business and makes in excess of $100,000 a year. My ex calls her half of my retirement pay, her “play money,” but I certainly did not “play” to earn it. When our mutually agreed upon separation occurred, my ex knew all about the USFSPA…The judge awarded her 50% [of my retirement pay]…my standard of living is about 1/3 of my ex’s standard…I’m also rated 40% disabled and this will go higher the older I become because of suffering a severe back injury when the helicopter I was flying crashed in the Mediterranean Sea. What disability did my ex end up with?
A Navy Master Chief Petty Officer writes:
My ex-spouse filed for divorce and left me with two minor children three days prior to transferring overseas. Three weeks after our final divorce, she remarried and has remarried twice since. When we divorced, I was a First Class Petty Officer (E-6), however she will benefit fourteen years later by receiving 43% of my retainer pay as a Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9). No matter how you look at that scenario, it is wrong. I will have dedicated 30 years of honorable service to my country and all I ask is to be respected in the same manner.
A retired Army Major explains:
I was awarded custody of my four minor children and my ex-spouse was ordered to pay me $765 monthly child support. She never did pay it but she left my Army retirement alone. Two years later she remarried and went after my army retirement. By now I was 100% service-connected disabled…the judge awarded her half of [my] retirement and a back judgment for over $16,000, plus she did not have to pay child support [she owed me] until the judgment was paid. This resulted in her getting out of child support payments and getting a share of my VA disability compensation.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Patricia Pownall (pictured) confronted then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the USFSPA several years ago. According to the Lieutenant Colonel, she has custody of her two small children and her civilian ex-husband earns three times what she earns, yet she must still give a large part of her military retirement pay to him. To watch her exchange with Rumsfeld, please click here. In closing, we again ask all supporters to email and fax a letter in support of the bill by clicking here. You only need to enter your name, email address, phone #, and city & state to participate, and we will send a fax and an email to all relevant legislators. The bills are in Oklahoma but we have asked to haveall of our members nationwide participate–to do so, please clickhere. We also ask that you call Senate Pro Tempore Brian Bingman and his executive assistant Cheryl Boothe at (405) 521 5528 and Floor speaker Mike Schulz and his executive assistant Pam Nordstrom at (405) 521 5612 and urge them to conduct an immediate, transparent floor vote on SB 528 and SB 917. Together with you in the love of our children, Glenn Sacks, MA Executive Director, Fathers and Families Ned Holstein, M.D., M.S. Founder, Chairman of the Board, Fathers and Families