Are you legally ready to deploy?

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Katherine Johnson
  • Staff Judge Advocate
None of us would ever deploy to a combat zone without a flack vest and helmet. Why? These items provide us with protection . . . and a little peace of mind. Likewise, most of us are willing to take the pain associated with the various inoculations providing protection from biological attack. While we are diligent in protecting ourselves from these personal threats while deployed, we oftentimes neglect another aspect of the deployment process that protects not only ourselves, but also our families -- personal legal readiness. 

I would argue that keeping your legal affairs in order is just as critical to the military mission as being healthy, well-trained and physically fit. If you take care of your legal affairs before you deploy, you can concentrate on your deployed duties by not having to work personal problems from thousands of miles away with limited communications capability. Legal readiness also gives you peace of mind to know your family will not have to deal with the assorted financial headaches that will occur if you do not return safely from your deployment. 

While most of us do not want to think morbid thoughts about not coming back from a deployment, the reality is servicemembers are dying in combat environments every day. Thus, you can either hide your head in the sand and hope you are lucky, or instead take the time now to make sure you have your legal affairs in order. 

There are many aspects to being "legally" ready to deploy: wills, power of attorney and life insurance. 

The first item every Airman should have is a will. A will allows you to control the disposition of your property upon your death. Even if you do not have a large estate, your will ensures your car, an interest in a home, or perhaps some family heirloom goes to the person you want to receive your property. More importantly, if you have minor children, your will allows you to name a guardian. Without a will, the court may appoint a guardian who may not have been your first choice to raise your children. 

Even if you have a will completed, you need to review it from time to time to make sure it is still current. Have you had a recent, significant family event such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, adoption of a child, or death of a family member? If so, you should review your will to ensure it continues to reflect your wishes. 

A power of attorney is the second document every member should consider obtaining prior to a deployment. A power of attorney is a document you provide to a second party authorizing the second party to transact business on your behalf. There are two types of powers of attorney: special and general. A special, or specific power of attorney, is for one act only, such as signing paperwork to purchase a house or register a car. 

A general power of attorney covers a multitude of issues such as banking, real estate transactions, child care, insurance, and income taxes. A general power of attorney is a very powerful document not to be treated lightly as it allows your agent to transact almost all of your personal business on your behalf. Thus, you should only pick someone you trust to serve as your agent for a general power of attorney. There are also durable powers of attorney. These documents usually address medical decisions and financial decisions should the member become incapacitated. 

These are what we refer to as the Big Four - a will, a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care (or a medical directive), and a durable general power of attorney. These are all part of a broad-based estate planning package that the legal office can explain to you in detail and help you prepare the right documents for your situation. 

The final area of concern for all military members should be their Servicemember's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) policy. Your SGLI is a contract between you and the insurance company. Proceeds from the policy pass according to the terms of the contract, not the terms of your will. If you have had a significant family event such as marriage, divorce, or birth of a child, you should review your SGLI beneficiary designation as soon as possible to ensure it continues to reflect your intent for the distribution of insurance proceeds at death. For example, if you continue to list your ex-spouse as your beneficiary, the money will pass to your ex-spouse regardless of the terms of your will.

It is also recommended military members do not use the "By Law" designation to distribute their SGLI benefits. By writing "By Law" as the policy's beneficiary, you forfeit control of the distribution of the proceeds, opening the door to claims, disputes, and potentially lengthy litigation by third parties claiming to be beneficiaries under the "By Law" distribution scheme. As the maximum SGLI coverage recently increased to $400,000, it is important all military personnel understand the impact of the "By Law" designation. 

When you use a "By Law" beneficiary designation on your SGLI policy, a court may end up interpreting the distribution of your benefit using definitions from the SGLI statute and state laws. As laws vary from state to state, the legal definition of terms like "spouse," "child," "parent," and "next of kin" may not be the same as you intend. For example, the term "parent" generally does not include foster parents or stepparents. For this reason, you should take a few minutes to specifically name your intended beneficiaries on your SGLI policy. You should also review the beneficiaries you have listed on a regular basis, such as when you PCS, prepare to deploy, or whenever circumstances affecting your family arise. 

The key to becoming "legally" ready for a deployment starts with advance planning. Begin by anticipating what could happen if you were required to be apart from your family at a distant location for an indefinite period of time, unable to remain in constant contact. Based on this planning, you can take the appropriate steps to be "legally" ready to deploy. If you wait to think about these issues until you are going through the mobility line, it may be too late. For more information, contact the legal office at 213-7404.