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ARLINGTON, Va. — Military members and retirees applauded an unusual briefing at the Pentagon on a 1982 law that allows state courts to divide military retirement as property in divorce settlements.

These members want the Defense Department to push lawmakers for reform of the law.

Mary Benzinger, an attorney in the Army’s Legal Assistance Policy Division’s Client Services Branch, spoke Wednesday to the audience about the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act.

The briefing, Benzinger said, was to provide an overview of the act’s provisions, as well as discuss the Defense Department’s proposed legislative changes.

But, Benzinger said as she opened her talk, she knew she was walking into a minefield.

“Believe me, I know this is an incredibly sensitive subject,” Benzinger said. “I know this is very emotional for you all.”

The USFSPA allows state courts to consider military retired pay as divisible property in divorce settlements.

Ex-spouses who were married for 20 years can get up to 50 percent of a military member’s pension in a divorce settlement until the day they die, or remarry. It can be as much as 65 percent, when child support and alimony are factored in. They also may be awarded survivor benefits.

Ex-spouses who have not remarried who had at least 20 years of marriage to a servicemember also may be awarded commissary and exchange privileges and medical coverage.

The law was originally intended to protect stay-at-home women who faithfully followed their husband’s military careers “from getting dumped for a trophy wife when he got promoted to colonel,” Trish Larrabee, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who attended the seminar, told Stars and Stripes afterward.

“But times have changed since then,” with the majority of spouses now working themselves, said Larrabee, who has become active in the effort to eliminate or at least significantly amend the act.

Wednesday’s briefing was highly unusual, audience members said. Air Force Maj. Janelle Quinn said she had not attended a similar briefing in nearly 20 years in the Air Force.

Quinn said she will have to give 17 percent of her retirement pay to her ex-husband of seven years once she leaves the service next year.

She said that as a personnel officer, she is “highly educated about military benefits,” buy that “the first time I ever heard about this [act] is when I got divorced. The only people who are really educated about it are the JAGs.”

“This [lack of information] is a big complaint I hear from a lot of people,” Benzinger told the audience. “I’m getting the word out. My goal in my job is to keep my soldiers informed.

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