7 things every spouse should know about military retirement benefits

By Kate Horrell

(Photo: PNC.com)
(Photo: PNC.com)

I’m a money geek, and I’m totally okay with that.  My husband is still a few years from retirement, and I already have our post-retirement budget estimated and a good chunk of our financial plans underway.

The military provides a generous retirement package for service members and their families.  Here are some of the things going into my long-range plans:

1. Retirement pay

Retirement from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Tax Credits, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When most people talk about military retirement, they focus on the retirement pay.

Note:  The military retirement pay system is changing for those who enter the military after January 1, 2018. Those with less than 12 years of service on that date will have the option to switch to the new plan.  In the interest of clarity, I’m writing about the plan that is in effect right now.

Military retirement pay starts at 50 percent of the highest three years pay and increases with every year of service. (Military retirement pay starts at 40 percent of the highest three years pay if the service member selected the Career Status Bonus/Redux option.) For most families, it isn’t enough to live on. Even if the retiree pursues a second career after the military, that monthly retirement paycheck makes a sizable difference in their overall income. Military retirement pay is subject to federal income taxes, and most states tax military retirement pay. For active duty retirement, it starts the very next month. It’s also adjusted for inflation each year, and it lasts for the lifetime of the service member.

2. Survivor Benefit Plan

In Honor of Memorial Day 2009, A Funeral Flag, A flag prepared for presentation to the next of kin ... Lion of Fallujah is laid to rest from Flickr via Wylio
© 2007 Beverly & Pack, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Because military retirement pay ends with the death of the service member, the Department of Defense offers a program, similar to life insurance, called the Survivor Benefit Plan. SBP provides income to a survivor after the service member dies and can represent a large portion of the family’s overall financial plan.

The retiring service member can select to cover up to 55 percent of his or her retirement pay with SBP coverage.  SBP can provide income to a spouse or former spouse, with or without children, children only, or a third party (called an insured interest). SBP coverage costs 6.5 percent of the base covered amount. For example, a retiree who covers $3,000 in retirement pay would pay $195 per month in premiums and their survivor would receive $1,650 per month in benefits. The most important thing about the SBP is that these benefits are inflation-adjusted and they last for the beneficiaries entire life.  

With very few exceptions, all designations for SBP must be made at the time of retirement. If married, the service member’s spouse must agree, in writing, to anything less than full (55 percent) SBP coverage.

3. Health care

Doctor from Flickr via Wylio
© 2011 Jeff Eaton, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

While military retirement pay is great, you can’t discount the amazing health care coverage that is offered to military retirees and their families.  While TRICARE Retired medical coverage is not quite as generous as the active duty version, it is still outstanding health care coverage at very competitive prices.  Retirees can choose between TRICARE Prime or TRICARE Standard and Extra.

Once the retiree or family member reaches age 65, they are eligible for Medicare. Costs not covered by Medicare may be paid by TRICARE for Life, a free supplemental policy. With Medicare and TRICARE for Life, many military retirees find that their overall health care costs remain fairly low. For retirees that travel extensively or reside outside the United States, TRICARE’s overseas coverage is outstanding. Surviving spouses of retired military members retain access to the same health care options after the death of the sponsor, provided they do not remarry.

In addition to coverage for medical care, retirees may have prescriptions filled through the military’s pharmacy system. Waits can be long and some medicines may not be available, but prescriptions filled at Military Treatment Facilities are free.

For long-range planning purposes, keep in mind that health coverage for retirees is constantly being evaluated and challenged by budgetary constraints.  It seems likely that retirees costs for TRICARE coverage will continue to increase.

4. Commissary and exchange benefits and access to base facilities

Retired military members and their dependents, including spouse and dependent children, retain authorization to shop at commissaries and exchanges. In addition, retirees may usually use base facilities, including gyms, golf courses, libraries, and hobby shops, among others. There may be restrictions at some bases, but they are rare. Surviving spouses retain access to base shopping and recreational facilities after the death of the sponsor as long as they do not remarry.

5. Space available flights

Airport from Flickr via Wylio
© 2007 Jorge Díaz, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

Traveling using military space available flights can be challenging when you’re on active duty, but non-working retirees have the flexibility to make the Space A system work for them. Retirees are typically the lowest category of priority. Surviving spouses are not eligible to use Space Available transportation.

6. Discounts

High-five from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 The U.S. Army, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

While not technically a military benefit, there are plenty of organizations and private companies that offer discounts, deals, and special offers to retired military and/or their family members. 

7. Benefits for former spouses

Project 365 #297: 241010 Give Me A Ring Love... from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Pete, Flickr | PD-MK | via Wylio

Generally speaking, military benefits for the spouse end if a couple divorces. However, there is a special provision that protects the long-term spouses of those who served in the military for a long time. Called the 20-20-20 rule, it applies to former spouses who were married at least 20 years, the service member served on active duty (or a reserve equivalent) for 20 years, and the military service and marriage overlapped for 20 years.

Most frequently, former spouses who qualify for military benefits under the 20-20-20 rule are the spouses of retirees. 20-20-20 spouses retain their TRICARE medical coverage, commissary, and exchange shopping privileges, and access to other base amenities as long as they do not remarry. Upon remarriage, military benefits provided under the 20-20-20 rule are terminated. TRICARE medical coverage is terminated permanently, but commissary and exchange shopping and other base access may be reinstated if the remarriage ends in death or divorce.

There is a more limited rule called the 20-20-15 rule.  It provides one year of transitional TRICARE medical coverage to former spouses who were married at least 20 years, the service member served on active duty (or a reserve equivalent) for 20 years, and the military service and marriage overlapped for 15 years.

The 20-20-15 rule does not provide for commissary or exchange benefits or base access.

Under both the 20-20-20 rule and the 20-20-15 rule, former spouses who are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance lose their eligibility for TRICARE coverage.  If the insurance is optional, the beneficiary has the choice to decline the employer-sponsored coverage and retain their TRICARE eligibility.

As you can see, the military provides a comprehensive range of benefits to its retired members and their families. These benefits can make a tremendous difference in your quality of life.  Knowing about the benefits is the first key to using them.

Photo Credit: This work, Rare Supermoon rises over Southwest Asia [Image 1 of 6], by SrA Tyler Woodward, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.

Kate Horrell is a financial coach who specializes in helping military families make the most of their pay and benefits.  She’s also been married to a sailor for a couple of decades, and has moved around the world with their four girls.  You can find her at www.KateHorrell.com, or on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest .

18 Replies to “7 things every spouse should know about military retirement benefits”

  1. LaWanda Robinson says:


  2. He didn’t retire from the military so the answer is “no”, you are not entitled to 50% of his retirement. Civil service does not fall under this category.

  3. Hello, I was married to my military spouse for 12 yrs . Per our divorce decree I will receive 50% of his retirement. He recently retired from the military at 20yrs. What is my next step with beginning to receive retirement? Thank you

    1. I’m a family law paralegal and deal with this issue often. Contact the attorney who represented you in the divorce (or if you represented yourself, find an attorney familiar with divorce in the military). A qdro (qualified domestic relations order) will have to be submitted to the plan administrator along with a copy of your judgement of absolute divorce. Once approved, they should start making payments to you directly

  4. Crystal McClung says:

    A few minor addendum we ran into:
    The first retirement check could be 6 weeks AFTER he retires. They pay in arrears.
    The insurance is automatically converted to Retiree Tricare STANDARD! You must enroll in Retiree Tricare Prime within the first 30 days of retirement!
    Delta Dental for retirees is ridiculously expense so shop around for dental! We found dental was cheaper to pay for a cash visit than a monthly premium.
    If there is even a thought about divorce, you MUST get the SBP in place before retirement. The retiring member can refuse but the spouse just signs nonconcur and it is put in place. There is NOT an option for this to be enacted after the retirement!
    Note especially on SBP, if the Retiree dies. The spouse does NOT receive the remaining pension unless SBP is in place, and even then it is not the full retirement amount.
    Life insurance is a completely different concept and should be setup PRIOR to retiring for funeral and large expenses. The SBP then can cover more daily living items on a monthly basis. They are two different concepts!
    Also, use the braces allowance for the kiddos before officially retiring!
    You can receive a FREE vision screening every 2 years on base as retirees so no need to pay for vision insurance.
    Your Retiree husband will 99% most likely grow some kind of facial hair (typically starting when terminal leave starts!).
    And when the Retiree comes home before starting a new job somewhere, have a conversation about him asking questions before jumping into things he hasn’t been involved in within the daily running of the household for pretty much the entire life of the marriage and military career. Their version of help will most likely drive you a little batty at first!

  5. Jackie Cross says:

    Hi, so my question is we were and still are married, hes done 23 active duty service years, we are separated now am i entitled to any of his retirement benefits? Of course he wouldnt tell me anything but i am now ready to move on.

    1. That depends entirely on what your judgement of absolute divorce says. You are not guaranteed to receive any of his retirement. That’s something that will have to be addressed in the complaint

  6. When considering the Survivor Benefit Plan, please seek expert advice on the alternatives. My father paid into SBP for over thirty years and then my mother died before he did so everything he paid into SBP was lost. Yes, they had the comfort of knowing that, should he die first, my mother would have an income for life but that ended up not being the case. There are other insurance policies that can be considered in place of SBP.

  7. Courtney L. says:

    Do you meet with and publicly speam to military spouses? I’d love to invite you to Grand Haven, MI, aka Coast Guard City USA, to discuss key financial aspects for every stage in life (military, married/divorced).

  8. My husband and I are approaching our 20 year anniversary, but we are currently separated and is getting a divorce. He spent 24 years in the military, but at the time of his retirement, we were married 14 years. What benefits am I entitled to?

    1. None. You would have to have been married at least 15 years of his career to qualify for temporary medical coverage. That being said, you can ask for alimony or a portion of his retirement in the divorce complaint– you just aren’t guaranteed to receive it

  9. As a second wife to a medically retired solider his ex isn’t entitled to anything.not even alimony she wanted per her divorce paperwork

  10. An unmarried “20/20/20” former spouse qualifies for medical benefits and commissary and exchange privileges if all of the following requirements are met:
    -The parties have been married for at least 20 years (date of marriage to date of divorce decree or annulment);
    -The service member performed at least 20 years of service creditable for retirement pay; and
    -There is at least a 20 year overlap of marriage and the military service. (i.e. married 20 yrs as a military spouse)

    1. A “20/20/15” former spouse qualifies for medical benefits for one year from the date of the divorce or annulment if all of the following qualifications are met:
      -The parties have been married for at least 20 years (date of marriage to date of divorce decree or annulment);
      -The service member performed at least 20 years of service creditable for retirement pay; and
      -There is at least a 15 year overlap of the marriage and military service.

  11. Thank you for the article. I must say, all of these questions of “what am I entitled to” from former spouses on here make me want to throw up. The sense of entitlement is what is ruining this country. Know this, for the most part, the military spouse serves just as much as the member and I put them on a pedestal. For example, dealing with deployments, shift work, etc. But, I would offer that the military spouse did not take an oath to die for their country. They do not put themselves in harms way. So, in my humble opinion…military spouses are NOT entitled to military pension. Child support? Yes. Alimony? Maybe.

  12. Me & my husband has been separate at least four years out of 30 years of marriage. I would like to know if I would be able to obtain my ID card and medical benefits without his presence. He is at that nursing home not able to take care of business. We are still legally married.

  13. Do I have to be married to my spouse for 20 years WITHIN my spouses career? We are approaching 20 years in July 2019. He is retired with 20 years as active duty. Am I eligible for 20/20/20? How does that work?

  14. My husband served 20 years in the AIR FORCE ,retired at E6.He is deceased for almost 7 years.my question is will the military offer any help with my teeth.I know about delta dental,but am on a very tight budget and would not be able to pay them every month.Iwould very much appreciate if you would reply to my question.i would not mind if it was students in training.Iwould love to have the newer implant that attach onto dentures.If not then dentures .i will be awaiting your reply.thank you and may God bless. jacqueline mutz

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