Does a military wife -- now divorced -- get a share of the pension?

Divorse settlement cases across the United States of former military couples -- which involve billions of dollars -- now await word from the US Supreme Court. At issue: How do the estranged parties split the military pension, if at all"

As an Air Force pilot, Ronald C. Miller flew 100 dangerous missions over North Vietnam. In all, he put in 20 years in the military, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Janet C. Miller, as his wife, moved from base to base with him, rarely living in the same place more than two years. For the most part, she was a homemaker, raising the couple's two children.

Mr. Miller retired six years ago from the military, and in 1978 the Millers divorced. The question now is: Should they divide up the Air Force pension that now amounts to $18,000 a year plus twice-a-year increases?

That question is being asked increasingly across the country, and billions of dollars in military pension payments are at stake. Three cases have reached the US Supreme Court, which this week (Oct. 20) agreed to hear arguments on the division of an Army pension by a California couple. The Millers, who live in Montana, and an Alaska couple are still awaiting court action.

The US solicitor general, in a "Friend of the court" brief, has called on the high court to rule that pensions belong solely to the serviceman, not to the divorced spouse.

"I made the decision to stay in [the Air Force] mainly because of the pension ," says Mr. Miller, who was only 41 when he left the military to become a banker in Great Falls, Mont. He argues that he made a contract with the Air Force before he married and that his wife is not entitled to any of his pension.

Did his wife help in his career? "I don't think she had much of a role," he says. "You attained a rank up to lieutenant colonel on your own. After lieutenant colonel, I think the wives were looked at more closely. When it comes to full colonel or general, I do think the wives were looked at very closely."

He concedes that Mrs. Miller took charge of some entertaining for Air Force personnel. "Most wives entertained in some fashion. That I gave her credit for , but not in terms of my pension."

Mrs. Miller, who has recently started a job as a social worker in Glasgow, Mont., maintains that she played a key role in her husband's career. "the wife was really expected to be in the Air Force," she recalls. She says that the family always lived on base, and that she was expected to do her community work on base. When a commander's wife asked for a volunteer, she says that other wives felt they couldn't refuse.

"Some social events were mandatory," Mrs. Miller says.

It would have been difficult to build up a career of her own, according to Mrs. Miller. "We moved 12 times in almost 15 years," she says. "I don't see how it's possible for any serviceman's wife [to establish a career]."

Mr. Miller discounts the argument that Mrs. Miller could not have had her own career. "She had a teaching degree," he says. "I don't feel that [the moving] especially jeopardized her career. Women can have jobs wherever they go."

But despite arguments over what might or might not be fair, the Supreme Court will probably be dealing a narrow legal point when it hears the case of the California Army couple. That legality is whether the congressional law setting up the military pensions allows state courts to divide them between spouses.

So far, seven states have ruled that military pensions can be split, and three have ruled that they cannot. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Miller, the Montana high court awarded Mrs. Miller part of the pension. The California Supreme Court has gone the same way.

Alaska, Arkansas, and Colorado have forbidden the division of military retirement pay by the courts.

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