Active duty service members are entitled to a pension after completing 20 years of service in the military. Reserve component service members are also entitled to a pension beginning at age 60, although there are some provisions for service members who have deployed overseas on combat tours to begin receiving their pensions earlier. Generally, current spouses are entitled to the retirement pensions of members of the U.S. military. The rules are more complex, however, for former spouses of military members who have divorced.
The Survivor Benefit Plan
A military pension is designed to pay out benefits for as long as the retired veteran lives. However, unless the veteran is enrolled in the Survivor Benefit Plan, benefits cease as soon as the veteran dies. This could leave a surviving widow without a pension income. To guard against this, and to protect military families, Survivor Benefit Plan extends a reduced pension benefit until the second spouse dies. Normally, married veteran retirees are enrolled in the plan automatically, unless the spouse specifically opts out. A recent change to the law also eliminated the Social Security offset for surviving spouses. The pension no longer reduces when the surviving spouse qualifies for Social Security.
The Military Point System
Unlike most traditional pensions, there is no pool of assets that can be sliced off to a divorced military spouse in a qualified domestic relations order. Instead, the government pays the retiree "retired pay," based on a point system. In some circumstances, a former spouse who was married to a retiree while the veteran was in the service is entitled to part of the retired pay. However, the portion of the retired pay to which she would be entitled would be the pension attributable to the retirement points earned while the couple was married. If someone marries a service member late in his career and divorces him, she would not be entitled to the same fraction of the pension as someone who became a military wife early in a veteran's career and stayed married through most or all of his career.
Generally, a surviving spouse is entitled to her share of military retirement pay for the remainder of her life, or until she remarries. Benefits under the Survivors Benefit Plan cease upon the former spouse's remarriage. However, under the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act, retirement payments made to a former spouse as a result of a divorce do not cease with her remarriage.
If a court awards a former spouse a share of retirement pay, and that spouse was married to the service member for at least 10 years of his military career while he was earning retirement points, then the spouse is eligible for direct payment. That is, the spouse can petition the Department of Veterans Affairs to have her share of the retirement pay paid directly to her.