Divorce of any kind can be a gut-wrenching experience. Military divorces take the normal stress and amplify it, making military divorce more complicated and messier than civilian divorce. One reason? Federal benefits, such as the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), often accrue to both military member and spouse. Disentangling SBP after divorce adds a layer of complexity to a Virginia divorce.
What is The SBP?
The Survivor Benefit Program (SBP), or Plan (DoD calls it both) is, as DoD says, “a Department of Defense sponsored and subsidized program that provides up to 55 percent of a service member’s retired pay to an eligible beneficiary upon the death of the member.”
SBP gives automatic coverage, at no cost to service members, to anyone serving on active duty. Coverage extends also to reservists who pass away from a service-related cause while engaged in inactive duty training.
Active duty service members can purchase SBP at retirement, and reservists can choose coverage after 20 years of qualifying service.
This annuity protection is for the lifetime of the service members’ dependents, which here includes:
- Spouse only
- Children only
- Former spouse only
- Spouse or former spouse and children
- Insurable interest (for unmarried or childless service members)
You Can Provide SBP Benefits to Your Spouse OR Former Spouse
You can provide benefits to either a spouse or a former spouse. You cannot simultaneously elect annuity benefits to both. If you choose to provide benefits to a former spouse, your children by a current spouse cannot receive benefits.
Service members must think and plan carefully for SBP, since it is valuable protection with many aspects that cannot be undone. That thought process extends to decisions to stop SBP for a former spouse in order to protect a current spouse.
How to Stop SBP
Say you retire from military service and then divorce. If your former spouse agrees to dropping SBP — and that is a big “if” — you have a one-year window between the second and third anniversary of your first retired pay to drop the benefit. To be very precise, you have from the 25th month through the end of your 36th month of retirement to end SBP.
If you choose to do this, you get none of your premiums refunded and nothing will be paid upon your death, to anyone. The decision is irrevocable, and you cannot later apply for SBP. As explained by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS),
“the SBP election you make at the time of your retirement is very difficult to change. There are only a few circumstances in which it is possible to change or alter a previously made election.”
Two circumstances can cause a change to SBP coverage:
- Death of a spouse
Part of the challenge with SBP is that it bows to divorce decrees, so if you have no language in your divorce settlement that specifies former spouse coverage, you are not required to carry it. You have to inform DFAS of your desires, but any premiums paid after the divorce is final will be refunded to you.
You can remove your former spouse or you can continue to provide her the benefit, but you cannot simultaneously provide for a new spouse while extending SBP to a former spouse.
If the court order requires SBP coverage, you must, says DFAS, “declare your intentions to claim Former Spouse SBP coverage in writing within one year of the date of divorce.”
Death of a spouse ends benefits for that spouse. If you paid premiums into the program after the death, those premiums are refunded to you.
The SBP and Remarriage
You can end benefits to a former spouse through remarriage after your divorce, with some caveats. The nuances of this process are challenging for most people to navigate effortlessly. Much depends on your choices for SBP before your remarriage, and decisions are time sensitive.
SBP benefits, regulations and procedures are —as with many government programs —complex and designed to anticipate a wide range of circumstances. In order to protect yourself and your new spouse, consult with a qualified family law attorney familiar with military divorce. Be sure to mention SBP benefits during any initial interviews so you can gauge the attorney’s familiarity with the program.
Military divorce requires experienced Virginia family law attorneys. Contact us at The Firm For Men, or telephone our Virginia Beach office at 757-383-9184, so we can answer your many questions. We have helped defend, protect and assert the rights of Virginia’s men in many military separations and divorces. Let us help you, too.