Military spouses seek residency benefits

By Kimberly Hefling: The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Don’t expect a rush order if you call Joanna Williamson’s jewelry business. She’s a military spouse, and it’s moving season.

About 800,000 service members move each year — nearly half during the summer. Moving is a ritual repeated nearly every three years on average for military families.

It’s also one that Williamson and other military spouses say could be made easier.

They are asking Congress to let military spouses opt to claim the same state of residence as their wives or husbands, who are allowed by law to keep their original residency as they relocate.

Having that option, the spouses say, would prevent many hassles associated with every move, such as obtaining a new driver’s license and reregistering to vote. In some cases, it would eliminate the need for couples to file separate tax returns, and lower the income taxes that some spouses pay.

“It may seem like that’s just such a tiny little thing to get your driver’s license changed and go change your registration. How is that such a big deal? When you move over and over and over again, it starts to become a really big deal,” said Williamson, 38, from her kitchen in a Washington suburb as movers loaded her family’s belongings into a truck.

The move to Port Hueneme, Calif., about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, north of is the sixth in eight years for Williamson and her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Williamson, 39, who have two children. Days after they arrive in California, he will go to Afghanistan for his third war deployment since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She will enroll the children in a new school, move the family into the new house, then head to get a new driver’s license.

Congress passed the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act in the 1940s to help eliminate the hassles of moving so troops could concentrate instead on fighting. Under the law, service members who owe taxes on their main income pay it in the state of residency.

A little more than half of all troops today are married, a higher percentage than in World War II. But being married to a service member can be a professional sacrifice.

Military spouses are less likely to be employed, more likely to be seeking work, and earn less than those married to someone in the civilian work force, according to a 2005 RAND Corp. study. Frequent moves are a major factor in the difference.

A happy military spouse is considered vital to keeping a service member in the military, and government programs in recent years have sought to help spouses train in easily transferrable jobs.

Williamson said she would like to have the same residency as her husband: Gainesville, Fla., where they met and married, where his family lives and where they plan to live after retirement. Instead, her residency has bounced around to Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Georgia over the years, while his remained the same.

“I think at this crucial time … years into our conflict, it’s one of the small ways that we can say that we recognize the sacrifice of the military spouse,” Williamson said.

Williamson said the law change wouldn’t have a financial effect on her business, making jewelry for military wives.

But it could affect the income taxes paid by some military spouses.

Rebecca Poynter, 45, an Army spouse who testified before Congress last month on behalf of the law change, said she first realized the discrepancy when she moved from McKinney, Texas, to Fort Meade, Md., with a major corporation. Her income tax went from zero to 10 percent, so she brought home $500 less a month even though her overall pay remained the same.

“It’s unusual for me to keep my job, but for that to happen on the other side of it, I just thought that that was unfair,” Poynter said.

Poynter said the way the law is structured now, many couples put personal property such as an automobile in the military member’s name to avoid many hassles. Sometimes, that leads to suppression of property for the spouse.

Williamson and Poynter met through the Military Spouse Business Association, and have led the effort on Capitol Hill to get the law changed. The cause has garnered support online among other military spouses who have written of their own moving struggles on a Facebook page dedicated to getting the law changed.

The legislation is sponsored by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. Under it, the spouse would have to have residency in the same state as the military member to take advantage of the law, and doing so would be optional.

The legislation recently passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. At a committee hearing, R. Chuck Mason, a lawyer with the Congressional Research Service, testified that based on the proposal’s wording, there may be court challenges in the future as to the constitutionality of extending the right to spouses.

The legislation would have no expense to the federal government.

What financial impact the legislation would have on states with a large military population is difficult to gauge because military spouses are such a mobile population and there’s a wide variety of potential scenarios, said Bert Waisanen, a fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mark Needham, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs, said some states with military bases may have concerns about a potential loss in tax revenue, but the legislation is backed by Kentucky officials because it’s a way to help military families. The state is home to Fort Campbell and Fort Knox and has about 40,000 active duty service members.

“It’s really minimal,” Needham said of the potential loss in tax revenue. “It wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar screen.”

Like Williamson, military spouse Poynter and her husband are in the middle of moving. Williamson said they are confident other military spouses in the Washington region will continue the lobbying to get the legislation passed.

“There are other spouses that are in D.C. that have said, ’What can I do?”’ Williamson said.

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