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Divorce downrange: Ins and outs of breaking up during deployment

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Getting a divorce is never easy. For those in the military, the logistics of breaking up, along with separation from friends and family, can make the process even more difficult. When one of the parties initiates a divorce while the other is serving downrange or stationed overseas, the process can be even more complicated.

Once a couple makes the decision that its relationship is "irretrievably broken," the first thing one of the parties needs to do is visit one of the legal assistance offices on Joint Base Lewis-McChord (located in building 2027 A at the corner of 8th and Liggett on Lewis Main and in the 62nd Airlift Wing headquarters building on McChord Field). If deployed, the Servicemember can find legal assistance while downrange, said Brittiny Carter, an attorney at the Lewis Main office. "If both parties are sure about what they want, there is little reason to wait," until the end of the deployment, she said.

That's not to say that the process is always seamless - or easy. If the deployed Servicemember is the one to initiate the divorce, he or she must have representation and file the petition locally, Carter said. The spouse would then be served with papers and need to respond to the petition. If living on base, he or she should have at least until the divorce is finalized before having to vacate quarters.

It takes a minimum of 90 days from the day of filing to finalize the paperwork, Carter said, but it can take much longer, particularly when the divorce is contested. For instance, if there are child custody or other issues, the process is much more complex and "we almost always recommend private counsel," Carter said, noting that such situations are "a lot more common than people would think."

On the other hand, a non-contested divorce means that both parties agree on everything, from child custody to splitting assets. In these cases, representatives from legal services can "guide the party here through the paperwork," said Carter. The deployed spouse should always seek legal counsel, even if the relationship is amicable. The local spouse can file, and the deployed Servicemember needs only to sign paperwork (which can be done downrange). "It can be done with minimal involvement," Carter said.

Though attorneys at the legal assistance office offer Servicemembers and their families free counsel and can assist them with the division of property and debt, child and spousal support and a parenting plan, they can't appear in court. "We can't represent them in court," said Carter, "But we can give them advice about how they can represent themselves."

Furthermore, there are programs in place to protect both the Servicemember and his or her dependents while they are in the midst of a divorce. Army Regulation 608-99 clarifies the obligations, including financial support, and "every legal assistance attorney is very familiar with it," Carter said. If the Servicemember isn't complying with those regulations, there may be instances when it is appropriate to approach his or her chain of command. "But always check with legal assistance first," Carter emphasized, "just to clarify what that obligation is." 

For more information, call (253) 477-1875 (Lewis Main) or (253) 982-5513 (McChord Field).

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