Earlier this month, the Pension Rights Center, along with the National Women’s Law Center, sent a letter to the Oklahoma state legislature urging it to defeat a bill that could dramatically alter the way the state’s divorce courts treat military pensions.
The Oklahoma state legislature is considering legislation that would change state law and affect the ability of former military spouses to receive military retirement pay. Currently Oklahoma law and that of virtually every other state treats military pensions as a marital asset when service members divorce, meaning that the portion of the pension earned during the marriage may be divided equitably between the two parties.
In what would be a far-reaching change, H.B. 1053 would require Oklahoma divorce courts to consider seven factors before determining whether and how to divide a military pension in divorce. These factors include the ability of the former spouse to support him- or herself; education and experience that the former spouse received during marriage; any “nonconformity to the military lifestyle” on the part of the former spouse; and whether or not the service member saw combat.
Using value judgments to determine how a pension should be divided is unprecedented in the modern era of no-fault divorce. A marital asset is earned throughout the course of a marriage. It should not be subject to confiscation or reduction due to other factors. Just as couples no longer have to prove one party is at fault in order to get a divorce, the division of marital assets should be a matter of mutual agreement (or, in the absence of agreement, a court order) and not used to “punish” one party or the other.
The legislation would also require that benefits stop if the former spouse remarries.
As we wrote in our letter,
…this proposal could have a devastating impact upon the retirement security of military spouses, many of whom have difficulty working outside the home because military families are subject to frequent relocations, including outside the United States, or because spouses of deployed military personnel are required to fulfill the family and care-giving responsibilities that would otherwise have been shared between the spouses.
This unwarranted upheaval of Oklahoma law would not only be inequitable, run contrary to the law and public policy of the rest of the states, and have a tremendous and detrimental impact upon the retirement security of former military spouses, but could also transform Oklahoma into a divorce haven for military members seeking to deprive their spouses of what would be deemed marital property anywhere else.
In the past, similar legislation has been introduced on the federal level in the United States Congress. Fortunately, those attempts went nowhere. However, the passage of the Oklahoma bill would set a dangerous precedent that its supporters will no doubt try to spread to other states.
To learn more about H.B. 1053, read the letter we sent to the Oklahoma state legislature.
Learn more about the Women’s Pension Project and issues affecting the women’s retirement security of women.