Divorce Wars: Military Style

Military Divorce Attorney Jeffrey Kerstetter Says Dual Jurisdictions Complicate Procedure

While every divorce is fraught with pitfalls, ranging from finding a compatible attorney to legal, custodial and emotional issues, military divorces have special challenges, says military divorce attorney Jeffrey Kerstetter.

"I've witnessed first-hand lawyers misquoting, misinforming or misadvising military clients or service members' spouses," says Kerstetter, a partner with the Blackwood, N.J.-based Law Offices of Lynda Hinkle (www.lyndahinkle.com).

Kerstetter says his observation is not a case of "knocking my colleagues, many of whom are excellent family lawyers," but rests on his view that most have handled few if any previous military divorce cases and tend to be unfamiliar with the interplay of state and federal statutes that could apply.

Kerstetter accepted his first military divorce case in 2012, and while he was comfortable with the "usual" process, the juxtaposition of federal rules, the Uniform Military Code and state laws created a sudden, steep learning curve. "I knew this wasn't a boilerplate divorce case and ended up spending days poring over federal statues and talking to military personnel to understand the nuances of a divorce that involved those in a uniform," Kerstetter says.

An example is the issue of where to file for a divorce. Almost every service member will have options as to in which state he should file his divorce. It may be where he is stationed, where he lists his residence or his home of record.

"This decision can greatly influence the division of the service person's retirement assets, because some states require that they be in active payment status and other places, such as Puerto Rico, will not divide them at all," says Kerstetter. "So question No. 1 becomes: "Sure you can file in New Jersey … but should you?"

Unsurprisingly, the separation that military families experience often brings extra pressure to a marriage. "Absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder," says Kerstetter. "In my experience, absence often prolongs the time when a couple decide to divorce, and it makes the process more difficult and expensive. It also can cost a servicemember tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars with regard to alimony, child support, and their hard-earned pension."

If a military divorce occurs and one of the parties is a career soldier, a "lifer," the cost of the divorce can be extremely expensive because the benefits during a lifetime can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kerstetter points out that you might have an agreement with the expected benefits based on rank when you divorce, but what happens if the service member remains in the military longer than expected or is promoted?

"If you're the person with the pension, you want to safeguard as much of it as you can for your future, and if your spouse has the pension, the other partner wants to ensure they have an equitable agreement," Kerstetter says.

The backdrop to an agreement is that divorce contributes to enormous stress. The Holmes-Rahe index that ranks stress in one's life lists divorce as No. 2, only topped by the death of a spouse. "The starting point is to ensure that your lawyer is prepared with the complexities on all the state and federal ramifications," says Kerstetter.

"It might not relieve the immediate pain, but when it's all over and you've entered another phase in your life, you'll have the relief and confidence that you obtained the most equitable and fair agreement."
Kerstetter has written a free, no-obligation tip sheet that is a basic guide for military personnel who are considering a divorce. To obtain the tip sheet, contact him at Jeff@lyndahinkle.com.
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The law offices of Lynda Hinkle specialize in family legal issues, ranging from divorce and custody cases to domestic violence, elder law and military divorce. Visit www.lyndahinkle.com for more information.

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