We have all heard the stories of contract marriages.
Two people meet each other, usually during training status or at the first duty station when the servicemember is still required to live in the barracks due to his or her rank, and they agree to get married…for the money. The servicemember gets to live outside of the barracks and collect BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) and the other party gets free health insurance and if they live near the installation they also get a free membership to the base gym and can also use the commissary and exchange. If they’re lucky, the servicemember tosses them a couple hundred bucks every month from the BAH.
Are contract marriages in the military legal?
Sadly and rightfully so, these arrangements are considered fraudulent. Not only can the servicemember face military charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for BAH or OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance), but they can also face 10-years confinement in a military prison, dishonorable discharge, and have to pay restitution for housing and substance benefits.
Even worse, their spouses can be prosecuted as well, and if they got married so that one party could get a green card, they could also find themselves in trouble with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Wait, does this mean I’m in a contract marriage?!
You may have gotten married so that the non-servicemember could obtain health insurance or simply so that the two of you could live together during your relationship with minimal interference from the command. (Such as waiting for the weekends to be together or your partner having to maintain a barracks room while also renting an apartment with you.) But don’t worry, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in or going to be in a contract marriage if you moved up your wedding date because life happened and you got married.
When exactly is it okay to get married for the benefits?
This is a tricky question because there isn’t really a right answer – this is something that you need to take on a case-by-case basis to see if marriage is right for you and your situation. The easiest answer is to take away whatever problem you’re facing – pregnancy, expensive health conditions, the desire to live together, overseas orders, etc., and then ask yourself: If this issue we’re facing didn’t exist, would I marry him or her anyway?
If you realize that you wouldn’t marry him or her at all, it might be time to rethink your relationship or reasons for getting married. If it’s simply so that you can have access to health insurance, maybe you need to check out the Marketplace (even outside of the enrollment period, you may qualify if you had a significant life change) or try to obtain Medicaid in your state. If you qualify for Medicaid based on your income, the Marketplace will also assist you in applying for Medicaid in your state.
If you believe that you would marry your significant other if you weren’t facing the specific issue that’s making you contemplate marriage, then you have nothing to worry about. You’re not in or contemplating a contract marriage whatsoever. Life happens. Sometimes even in the military world, birth control fails, we are diagnosed with a chronic health condition when we don’t have any or enough insurance, or our loved one gets chosen for overseas orders and we’d like to join him or her.
You can’t predict when big life changes will happen, but you can choose how you react to it. If you are contemplating moving up your wedding date, the best thing that you can do is protect yourself early by discussing if the expense of a pre- or postnuptial agreement would be beneficial to your marriage, as you can also spell out in writing how you’ll handle your finances during your marriage, and an agreement may also be especially important if you or your fiancé has significant assets or is expected to inherit assets in the future. Even if you decide not to have an agreement, discussing the types of questions together that you would be asked by an attorney may help the two of you get on the same wavelength regarding finances quickly. Marital counseling may also be beneficial to relationship as well, as it is known for building a solid foundation for newly married couples.
It isn’t always a terrible thing to marry because of life circumstances you’re going through as a couple, but if you do, you need to be prepared because military life isn’t always the daydream we imagine and oftentimes you’ll need to have more trust and confidence than you’ve ever had in another person to make it work.