Divorce in the American Foreign Service and the Shocking Loophole Affecting the Most Vulnerable Family Members


by Celine Erickson, AAFSW Transition Chair, November 2021

The divorce process in the American Foreign Service is uniquely challenging due to the distinctive lifestyle of all members at post or stateside. In the light of these challenges the Department of State (DOS) has spurred its effort to support all the members of this large community, employees, and families, during this demanding transition. AAFSW is pleased to share below some helpful links to these resources. 

Unfortunately, some are left behind and they keep reaching  out to AAFSW for guidance and support. They are the loopholes of the organization, which has until now been avoiding an unpleasant responsibility towards some of its most vulnerable members. Because divorce is considered a private matter by DOS, all responsibilities or lack of there of, during this transition, are differed to the employee. 

When an employee becomes a non-supportive family member, DOS has a set of a few ineffective tools. One of them is the “Be Nice” cable, which encourages employees to support their families during the separation and divorce transition”, with no remediation when the employee is unwilling. Another tool is the “Family Advocacy Program”, which can only be used under some circumstances and easily circumvoluted. 

DOS views divorce as a private civil matter to be addressed by a civilian court.  When the separation becomes difficult,  including physical harm and non-physical harm, harassment, emotional abuse and abandonment, the spouse is left with  a sense of loss and powerlessness, as one spouse once  reflected to me. 

Under the leadership of its President Lara Center, AAFSW relentlessly tries to offer guidance and some sort of support to any member of the American Foreign Affairs Community, including Foreign Service and Civil Service employees, spouses, partners, members of household and retirees whenever solicitated. It is very challenging as a spouse recently stated: “I am circling back after some very difficult weeks, receiving zero cooperation from my spouse. The Global CLO officer I spoke with was very kind but did not appear to have experience necessary to understand issues at hand. I am still feeling unsupported by this community”, or another one spouse: “I did reach out to GCLO. I was told to read the divorce manual on their website with no further support.” More spouses have shared their experience to AAFSW in the article below.

Unlike DOS, the Department of Defense (DOD) has taken many steps to protect family members alleviate the pain when facing abandonment. Each branch of the military has the obligation help families under their own regulations. Here are the regulations supporting this effort:


1/ The military designation of “non-supportive family members” to address servicemembers who default on supporting their family during separation. DOS has no designation for non-supportive employees.


2/ Transitional Compensation (TC) for Abused Dependents”This program was established by Congress for abused dependents of military personnel through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994 (Pub. L. 103-160). This rule consolidates and clarifies existing procedural requirements established by the Act and currently found in internal DoD guidance, DoD. Transitional compensation does not last more than 36 months.


3/ Military legal assistance and attorneys, and counseling services”. There is no legal representation or counselling for spouses at State. All is deferred to GCLO and ultimately to AAFSW.


4/ Under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, The Defense Financing Accounting Service may also take actions to recoup (and transfer to the family member) some or all the basic allowances families are entitled to. If servicemember refuses to offer financial support, he or she may be punished under the Abandoned Spouse Policies by Branch.” 


DOS recently supplemented AR 608-99 with Army Directive 2020-04, which creates an additional financial support requirement. In Army Directive 2020-04, the Secretary of the Army has approved an enhanced interim financial support requirement, which became effective May 24, 2020.

AAFSW is seeking parity between DOS and DOD regarding the support of families in transition during divorce and separation. The “Be Nice” cable is not enough when non-supportive family members do not comply. Too many family members and children are being affected by the duress of their separation. “I was with my two kids shipped off to live with my parents’ house back in America while my FSO husband lived it up with new girlfriend in luxury housing at post”. AAFSW will continue to explore how DOD has engaged a more formal and structured enforcement of good conduct for non-supportive family members, recently enacting Army Directive 2020-04. A spouse currently going through this unfortunate transition has recently rightly stated: “State needs better guidelines in place before divorces happen. It is merely offering general bits and pieces to address certain few issues after the fact without proper support in place prior to these abandonments and divorces, which are obviously common, complex, and uniquely challenging given the foreign service context”.