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In 1999, attorney John Carney received an unusual phone call. An American soldier, dialing from Japan, said he was having trouble finding a lawyer to handle his divorce.
Carney, who runs a consumer law practice with a sizable family case load, represented the soldier and discovered that though military divorces don't legally require specialized lawyers, they're regulated by a combination of state and federal laws that make them different—and to some attorneys, more daunting—than civilian divorces. After researching the process, Carney created a Web site called www.militarydivorceonline.com that explains the relevant laws, outlines the process and provides a list of 100 attorneys across the country who specialize in helping servicemen and women end their marriages.
Eight years and two wars later, Carney's Dallas practice is thriving. While his staff initially did one to two military divorces annually they now work more than 100 a year.
"The extended deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have just been brutal on marriages, Carney says."
More servicemen and women are married now than during previous wars—more than half compared to less than a third during Vietnam—and the number of divorces among active-duty troops has grown since the wars began. The number of divorces reported by the Army jumped from 5,554 or 2.2 percent of married troops in fiscal year 2001 to 10,519 or 4.1 percent in 2004, while troop strength held steady. Since the 2004 spike, the percentage has hovered at between 3.2 and 3.3 percent.
While there has been a modest overall upturn in military divorce, a year-long RAND Corp. study released in 2007 concluded that despite long and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, divorce in the armed services is no higher now than it was a decade ago. Whatever the numbers, it's clear that soldiers who opt to end their marriages share a host of factors.
Many soldiers begin their unions on shaky ground with hasty marriages before leaving to fight, and repeated deployments and longer tours add to the stress. Whether returning soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, return to find that their spouse has sought companionship elsewhere or simply arrive home to realize their partner no longer seems to be the person they married, soldiers' relationships are constantly at risk.
"Military couples have to be able to work together under the same roof, and they have to be able to keep the home fires burning while separated by distance or wartime responsibilities," says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strohm, a chaplain and family life ministries officer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Soldiers come back changed while the stay-at-home spouse has become more independent, he adds, which requires a period of readjustment.
Often, Carney's military clients are those who haven't made it through that readjustment stage. "The adaptation back to civilian life is difficult," he says. "We see them come back, try to make their marriages work and fail, and then go back to what they know, i.e., deployment."
Barbara Stewart, a family law paralegal who works for Carney, says adultery is the most frequent common denominator in military divorces. Many of the marriage dissolutions are fairly simple because they involve young couples who don't have a large number of assets, but there are other complications. The practice has had a surge of divorces between American soldiers and foreign nationals, including German, French or Korean citizens. Helping a soldier unable to appear in court or serving a foreign national abroad can be a challenge, Stewart says.
Aside from sorting out the pension plans, retirement benefits and various state and federal laws unique to the military (such as the one that protects an actively deployed soldier from being served), Carney's staff had to find a way to get servicemen and women divorced without their having to appear in court.
Carney came up with a unique use of what's called "a deposition on written question," which means that the person initiating the divorce answers questions verbally or on paper as sworn testimony before the military base's legal affairs officer or court reporter. That way, unless the divorce is contested, they don't have to appear in court.
Since many of those splitting from their spouse no longer live in their home county or have been stationed in numerous locations, another aspect of military divorce is determining where a service member can file. Texas residents can file in their formal county of residence, the state where they were married or in the state of their base if they've been there for at least six months.
Access to expedient divorce is important, Stewart points out, because when separations drag on, conflict often ensues and can harm a military member's career. A brigadier general they represented, for example, was concerned that he wouldn't get promoted because his estranged wife kept calling his commanding officer to complain that he wasn't supporting her while their divorce was pending, even though he was.
"There aren't many lawyers who know how to do this," Stewart says. "We've worked out a system where we can do the divorce without either party being present."