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Military Divorce and Survivor Benefits

by Mark Sullivan |

A recent Ohio case teaches two lessons for the former spouse in a military divorce case: a) do not ever rely on government life insurance in a settlement, and b) be sure you have made a timely election of the survivor annuity, in case your EX dies first. Here the parties were divorced in 2005, and the decree required the ex-wife to be designated as beneficiary for the Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI) and the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) of the husband, a military retiree. 

The ex-husband remarried, and - when he died in 2020 – his current wife received the money for both death benefits since she was the surviving spouse. The ex-husband had not made the required designation for VGLI. And the retired pay center paid out the SBP to the surviving spouse since it had no evidence that the ex-wife was to receive the SBP; she couldn’t prove that a “deemed election” form had been submitted in order to lock in her SBP coverage 

The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order denying the ex-wife’s claims, stating that a) federal law gives the servicemember an absolute right to designate the beneficiary for VGLI, despite a court order requiring otherwise; and b) the ex-wife could have submitted a “deemed election” to the retired pay center, but she had relied on her lawyer to “take care of that” and there was no proof that he had done so within one year of the divorce. The Court ruled that she had “sat on her rights” and did not have a claim for SBP.  Turnmire v. Turnmire, CASE NO. CA2021-12-165, 2022-Ohio-3968, 2022 Ohio App. LEXIS 3747 (Ohio Court of Appeals, Twelfth Appellate District, Butler County, November 7, 2022). 

The form for making an election for SBP coverage for the former spouse is DD Form 2656-1; it must be sent to the retired pay center within one year of the divorce; the addresses for the pay centers are on the form.

Use DD Form 2656-10 to make a “deemed election” for the former spouse; it has to be transmitted within one year of the order requiring the member/retiree to elect former-spouse SBP coverage. 

The very LAST date when an election may be made is by voluntary election at the time the members is about to receive retired pay.  Use DD Form 2656, at Items 36-37. These allow the insertion of WHO is the beneficiary, and HOW MUCH is the SBP base amount [from full retired pay all the way down to $300/mo. minimum].

When representing the FS [former spouse], inclusion of the SBP [or suitable life insurance, to be owned by the FS] is critical. “The pension dies when the servicemember dies” is the slogan. The best advice to former spouses: “Don’t leave home without it!”


About the Author

Mark Sullivan

mark.sullivan@ncfamilylaw.com | 919.832.8507


Mr. Sullivan is a retired Army Reserve JAG colonel.  He practices family law in Raleigh, North Carolina and is the author of The Military Divorce Handbook (Am. Bar Assn., 3rd Ed. 2019) and many internet resources on military family law issues.  A Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Mr. Sullivan has been a board-certified specialist in family law since 1989.  He works with attorneys and judges nationwide on military divorce issues and in drafting military pension division orders.

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