KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — For servicemembers overseas who discover that the love of their lives isn’t going to be lifelong, getting a divorce can be more difficult than it is in the States.
There are the laws of a foreign country to consider, or lawyers to hire long-distance from the state of record, especially if the divorce is contested.
If the divorce is uncontested, it’s easier. There are more options, including getting a “quickie” divorce in Guam. But even then, legal advisers on the bases warn servicemembers to be careful about seeking quick fixes to their marital problems.
It’s advice Air Force Tech. Sgt. Willford Brandon, 27, says he wishes he’d taken. When Brandon’s estranged wife came to Okinawa to return their son from a summer visit last September, he took the opportunity to make his divorce final by flying to Guam.
On Guam, a U.S. territory, the only legal residency required for an uncontested divorce is for the petitioner to spend a week on the island. Ads on the Internet and in Stars and Stripes say divorces can be complete within two weeks.
“My wife and I made the decision to amicably divorce in October 2005, but things happened and she moved from the state where she was going to file, and when we decided she’d stay here for a while when she returned with our son, it seemed to be a good time to do something.”
After doing research on the Internet, Brandon contacted a Guam lawyer and made arrangements to spend a week at a hotel. The plane ticket cost about $700, the hotel another $500, and he spent about $400 for car rental. With the $1,300 lawyer’s fee and food and entertainment thrown in, the entire divorce trip cost him more than $3,000.
“But I’d be divorced within a week of returning home,” he said. “It seemed worth it.”
Except the week passed and he heard nothing from his lawyer.
“I called the office on the seventh day back and they told me both the judges who handled divorces were off island at a conference,” Brandon said. “So, I was kind of upset and asked to speak to the lawyer. I was told he was gone for the day.”
He continued calling the office for the next two weeks and never managed to reach the attorney or get him to return his calls. Attempts by Stars and Stripes to contact Brandon’s lawyer, Ron Moroni, for his side of the story also were fruitless.
At the end of the fifth week, the lawyer’s secretary told Brandon that the papers were going to be filed with another judge. It wasn’t until the end of the sixth week that he was informed the divorce was final.
“I was furious,” Brandon said. “I could have gotten the divorce at half the price in the States. The only reason I paid so much to do this in Guam was the speed they advertised.”
Although base legal centers handle the legal needs of many servicemembers and civilians connected with the military, they do not handle divorces.
“Generally we just discuss separation agreements,” said 1st Lt. Adrienne Strzelczyk, a Marine legal assistance officer on Camp Foster. “This office will draft separation agreements and act as a free notary. But that’s as far as we go.”
A separation agreement acts as a contract between the two parties prior to the actual divorce, she said.
“It cuts down on all the arguments that might come up and acts as a guideline to follow, as well as protecting the rights of the divorcing couple,” she said. “But we’re not here to give any divorce counseling, even though the separation is an important part of dissolution of the marriage. Where and how they go about getting their divorce is up to the couple.”
She said she has heard of seven-day divorces in Guam, but would not recommend them.
“I would simply caution against it,” she said. “To me, you’re gambling a little bit there. I’d be careful, even if it’s an uncontested divorce. It just seems a pretty cavalier attitude toward divorce.”
For those thinking about divorcing, Strzelczyk recommends contacting a civilian attorney in the couple’s state of record.
It’s the same advice Air Force Capt. Kristina Penta gives at the Kadena Law Center on Kadena Air Base.
“All we can do is offer them generalized advice and tell them to contact a civilian lawyer,” Penta said. “And we don’t recommend any civilian lawyer in any state or territory. If they want to try an uncontested divorce in Guam, contact a Guam lawyer.”
She said she advises a divorcing couple do their homework well in advance.
“There’s plenty of information on the Internet,” she said.
Guam attorney Ross E. Putnam says he tries to make sure that people contacting his office understand that two weeks is the quickest a couple might get an uncontested divorce in Guam — but it’s not a guarantee.
“You’re sort of in the judge’s hands once the petition is filed,” said Putnam, who was not Brandon’s attorney. “It seldom goes over two weeks, but it could.”
He said he has practiced law for 20 years and has never seen an uncontested divorce take more than a few weeks.
“I do several a month — it’s pretty routine,” he said. “And, as far as I know, I’ve never seen a state turn one down.”