Editor’s Note: Kathleen Mills first contacted Lovefraud in September 2006 about her military husband, who she believes is a sociopath. He filed for divorce, deployed to Iraq and refused to pay her the financial support that by law, military families are entitled to receive.
A year ago Kathy sued the Ohio National Guard and the governor of Ohio. “My situation is still the same,” she wrote last week. “My husband is still committing BAH fraud, with the open knowledge not only of the Guard, but the governor’s office.”
Kathy Mills is editor of the divorce section of www.4militaryfamilies.com. She has been invited to testify before the House Armed Services sub-committee. The following is excerpted from her open letter to legislators, military commanders and concerned taxpayers.
Military families at risk—the unrecognized battlefront
Many sacrifices are made by members of our Armed Forces during times of war, civil unrest or national distress, and whenever our great country has the need. And the sacrifices made by these military service members are made equally by the spouses and children of our military families.
Military families are a special breed. They have signed up to sacrifice any hope—in many cases, for life—of an ordinary existence. They often live without the presence of their service member spouse as parent and partner. They often live in fear as their spouses deploy to dangerous areas. They often endure the difficulty of dealing with spouses suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the related difficulties that condition brings.
Despite these difficulties and sacrifices, one thing military spouses count on is that they and their children will be taken care of financially in spite of losses or suffering. The unfortunate fact is, too many of them end up abandoned by their soldier spouse and must then face another battle—largely unseen and often fruitless—to receive the support promised them by law.
Scope of the problem
Even the most heroic soldier and his/her spouse may find themselves estranged at some point. Some of these soldiers choose to continue supporting their families, but many do not. The fact is, every day, on military bases and in off-base homes around the country, abandoned military spouses and children struggle to meet their basic financial needs. Though the Army has measures in place to address these types of situations, the relevant regulations are being neither applied nor enforced. The Army isn’t unique; this problem of spousal/family abandonment exists in every branch of the Armed Forces.
Soldiers receive special extra pay to support their families, such as Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) and Family Separation Pay (FSP). Unfortunately, in cases of abandonment, the funds are misused when soldiers who receive the pay they’re entitled to withhold the proper share from their families and keep the money for their own use. It is a common problem.
Obstacles and challenges
Marriage is a difficult proposition under the best of circumstances. In the case of military marriages, the challenges can be even more overwhelming. While estrangement and separation are at least as common among military families as among civilians, one difference is highly significant. A spouse whose military member husband/wife is deployed in the service of the United States cannot, by law, sue to end the marriage—no matter what the circumstances. On the other hand, a soldier who wishes to leave a marriage has two options:
1) He/she can sue for and obtain a divorce, or
2) He/she can simply abandon a spouse and children and continue to benefit from the government monies legally allocated to help support the family.
Despite existing laws, strong public support, and the endorsement of government officials, support for many abandoned military spouses and children is simply not forthcoming when it is petitioned for. Protection without enforcement is no protection at all. A spouse who seeks appropriate support monies faces a series of daunting obstacles to rectify the situation. And one obstacle is paramount: No soldier who receives BAH and FSP monies can be ordered to use them to support the family.
Fighting the battle on multiple fronts—the military system
Withholding BAH and/or FSP funds from a military spouse qualifies as spousal abuse under military law. Yet, proving such abuse is nearly impossible since no trial can be instituted for spousal abuse without the express permission and approval of each soldier’s commander. It is up to the commander to pre-determine that non-support is occurring and that government-supplied funds are being used for purposes other than those they are designated for. It is here that a hidden system works to override the official system.
Few statistics are kept concerning this issue. There is little backup for an individual spouse’s claim that this problem is not unique to her (or him). Specific challenges arise because:
- Existing military laws are inadequate: Mandates are in place, but no soldier can be ordered to comply. For example, at the federal military level, military protection orders—by which abandoned spouses can receive redress—are granted in only 7% of cases.
- Ethics and integrity regarding the military family’s needs are easily put aside as a consequence of the commanding officer’s desire to support the soldier.
Individual petitioners (abandoned spouses) who manage to learn the military system and persist in fighting may gain some relief. But the vast majority does not have the knowledge, time, and resources to do so. And relief for one determined spouse does not translate into help for the hundreds of others who have only the system to trust—and clearly the system doesn’t work. Additionally, the costs involved—including legal fees—are significant at a time when families are least able to afford such expenses.
The reality is that the military system “looks the other way” when it comes to military spousal abandonment.
Civil law protections
Civil laws exist to protect spouses from various types of abuse, including financial abandonment. At the state level, spouses who have the time, money and resources may appeal to the Civil Court. Another factor comes into play—the revised Soldier Sailors Civil Relief Act, which can be used as a sword or a shield against or for military families. The Civil Relief Act provides automatic 90-day civil court stays that soldiers can use to prevent judicial orders/hearings from being issued against them. This situation leaves the military spouse unable to obtain civil court orders that could provide her financial support from the soldier and an ability for the commander to fully enforce regulations with the soldier.
A simple solution
In order to preserve the original intentions of spousal support law, model a new law upon the existing one that protects former spouses during divorces. The new law would be entitled “The Uniformed Services Spouse Protection Act (USSPA).” It would provide a simple system of checks and balances. It would smooth the process and end the frustration and suffering of abandoned military spouses and families. It would stop the waste of government time and money spent trying to enforce existing laws.
The law would simply provide that an estranged spouse who has a valid marriage certificate may petition DFAS directly for BAH/FSA income entitlements. From this single action, four major benefits would result:
- End the agony of decision that military commanders face when asked to intervene to enforce support.
- Save hours of paperwork by reducing or eliminating the incidence of BAH fraud.
- Ensure that funds already approved by taxpayers are being used for their intended purpose
- Eliminate the temptation for soldiers to profit from abandoning their spouses.
The good you will do
Passing this new law is good for America. It will save the thousands and thousands of dollars other government agencies must provide when family military pay is diverted from its rightful purposes. It will save the government the hours and hours now spent to manage the appeals of deserving spouses who are forced to chase after their legal entitlements.
And perhaps even more importantly, the new law will enhance the image of our country both at home and abroad. It will demonstrate that we, as a people, believe in backing our military forces in every way. And that includes standing behind our military families, recognizing the great sacrifices they make and ensuring they are not abandoned in their time of need.
If you would like more information, contact Kathy Mills at [email protected].