It Happens: Divorce and the Foreign Service

cover of a recent UK paperback editionImage via Wikipedia

“Yesterday, Tom came home from work and announced that he wants a divorce. He wants to get separated right away and for the children and me to leave post immediately. I was devastated! It is the middle of the school year and only the second year of our three-year tour. I had NO idea this was coming and am in a state of shock. My first thought is about our children, especially Beth, the middle one, who has special needs. How will they respond and get through this? Many thoughts are flying through my head about the dissolution of our marriage and family. How could this have happened when I thought everything was going along so well? All of us had adjusted well to this post, the kids were reasonably comfortable at school, and I had finally found a job I liked in the Embassy”

According to Pew Research (The States of Marriage and Divorce | October 15, 2009): [T]he Census Bureau survey showed that a shrinking share of Americans are married2 — 52% of males ages 15 and older and 48% of females ages 15 and older. The proportion of Americans who are currently married has been diminishing for decades and is lower than it has been in at least half a century. […]Among married Americans, the median duration of their married life in 2008 was 18 years.


Unlike Carly Simon’s song, this does not happen everyday in the Foreign Service, but often enough to pay attention to. At one post, a friend who lived in a nearby city called weeping on the phone one Sunday morning when her husband of 20 years decamped to a hotel after telling her he did not want to be married anymore. Another city and another country later, a trailing husband did not want to be a trailing spouse anymore, and went back to a real job back home. At the same post, another husband walked out of wife and four kids. At still another city, a spouse arrived at post months after her husband only to discover that she had been replaced by the daughter of her husband’s landlord. The chance of hearing a spouse ditched for a younger model is higher among wives because women still comprised 80% of the Foreign Service family member population. That and this too (read Madam le Consul’s Beware. Be Very Ware post, sorry cache files only).


Divorce is stressful and complicated enough whether you live in Texas, DC or anywhere else. Except that in the Foreign Service, the end of a marriage is often is more stressful and more
complicated because of lack of extended family support when you are overseas and because government regulations can at times place the trailing spouse at a disadvantage. The Family Liaison Office (FLO) also cites the lack of access to information as reason for further complicating divorce issues such as domicile, child custody, visitation, support, and pension benefits.


Susan, a
former spouse says in the FLO Guide:

“I would like to share my experience with other spouses who face this situation:

  • Don’t allow yourself to be forced out of your home, unless you are concerned about your safety (a possible abuse situation).

  • Don’t leave post until:

  • You have Advance Return of Family travel orders, which covers the cost of plane tickets home and allows for the shipment of HHE.

  • Your spouse signs a statement of mutual consent indicating that you are not abandoning or deserting your spouse and/or your family. Make sure that a U.S. Consular Officer serves as witness.

  • Your spouse signs an Authorization to Receive Goods Shipped from Post.

  • Your spouse signs a Joint Property Statement, which covers what you have in storage, so that this can be released to you.

  • You have the powers of attorney you need, including a limited power of attorney from your bank or credit union.

  • You have plans and resources in place. (Contact your bank/credit union to make sure that you will not be closed out of joint accounts without your written permission, which has been notarized). Without these documents in place, it may be more difficult to set up a home and take care of yourself and your children.”

It is important to note that the Department of State views divorce as a personal matter and it does not provide legal services to employees or spouses. The Family Liaison Office’s Crisis Management and Support Officer acts as an information and referral source for separation and divorce questions only and is not an advocate for either party.

Below are some important notes from the FLO Guide on The Foreign Service Family And Divorce:


Important Note:
HHE can be removed from an overseas location or from storage (if stored at U.S. Government expense) only with the employee’s consent or a valid court order. [DS– HHE or household effects are often stored in domestic locations, and occasionally at overseas location but always under the employee’s name]


Important Note:
If the employee will not cooperate in requesting this advance travel/shipment, contact the Crisis Management and Support Officer in the Family Liaison Office for guidance. On July 11, 2007, the Director General sent a cable to all posts entitled “Requirement for Employees to Provide Adequately for Spouse and Children Due to Separation and/or Impending Dissolution of Marriage”. It states that “failure to adequately arrange for a spouse or children’s transition from post can reflect adversely upon the U.S. government. Moreover, the Chief of Mission (COM) and the Department have a legitimate concern in the welfare of family members accompanying employees to post.


Important Note:
Children of divorced employees or spouses cannot be listed on travel orders unless a copy of the divorce decree establishing that the employee/spouse has joint or sole physical custody (or the equivalent) of the children is on file in the appropriate personnel office. Whether there is joint custody or sole custody, a notarized statement from the former spouse authorizing the child to reside abroad also is required. Requests for exceptions to this policy will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.


Use Extreme Caution Before Agreeing to Sign Waivers!
Carefully review any document you are asked to sign by your spouse which could possibly jeopardize future annuity, survivor annuity (separate from annuity), or Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) for yourself or your children. You may want to consult an attorney before you sign any such document.

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