Contract Marriage and the Military in USA

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Military personnel have some of the most difficult marriages. Long periods of absence and deployment in hostile overseas conditions are enough to break the most devoted of relationships. In order to minimize the trauma caused to families of its personnel, the US military tries to provide several types of benefits to military spouses. Sometimes though these become the object of unscrupulous people and lead to contract marriages.

All about a contract-marriage

Known as a “contract marriage,”, this is actually a marriage of convenience in which a soldier makes ample money on the side by getting married to someone who is looking for some kind of gain, which could range from free housing and medical benefits to US citizenship even. In fact such a contract marriage makes illegal use of a basic principle in the armed forces: A soldier who is married makes more money, and has access to more privileges as compared to those who are single. While such a principle was brought in place to make lives of married personnel and their families easier, it has increasingly become the lure for unscrupulous people.

In April 2007, L.A. Weekly1 reported about a Marine joined the military in 2001 and then two days before he was deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2003, he  fraudulently married the sister of a childhood pal so he could collect benefits and split them with her, his partner in crime. The arrangement he had with his “wife” was simple: Every month that he received extra pay for the marriage, he would give her $300.



Entering into fraudulent marriages a common phenomenon within the junior ranks since at these levels soldiers earn a meager starting wage of roughly $1,300 per month. For these guys, the lure of extra bucks coming from married pay is attractive enough to tempt them into a fraudulent marriage. In the case of the marine reported by L.A. Weekly, he  admitted to making an extra three or four grand by his contract marriage.

What are the reasons

The two main reasons which are usually the object behind entering contract marriages in the US military are housing as well as medical benefits. In case of the former, the point of attraction is a higher Basic Allowance for Housing which is the monthly stipend paid to the soldier for shelter and upon marriage extended to the spouse. The BAH in case of single and married personnel have a substantial difference. For instance, the L.A. Weekly report mentions that in 2007 an Army private living off the base in Los Angeles would be collecting about $1,350 per month in BAH which would be barely enough to pay average monthly apartment rent. However if he was married, the amount would shoot up to almost $1,800.  Again if  he was deployed overseas, the soldier would also receive a monthly $250 Family Separation Allowance, sometimes referred to as “missing me” pay, to compensate both parties for their separation.

Apart from this, a married military personnel would also receive higher medical and dental benefits which in case of a contract marriage would be split with a ‘spouse’.

Yet another major reason for US military personnel entering contract marriages is earning some extra money in return for offering an immigrant spouse the right to stay in the country. One such incident2 came to light in 2012, in which Joshua Priest, 23,  an Army private stationed at Fort Riley married a Jamaican woman Shannakay Hunter in 2010 so he could get more money from the military and she could get legal immigration status. Members and veterans of the U.S. armed forces, and their dependents may be eligible for citizenship under special provisions of law. Though the procedure for application of green card of permanent residence status is the same for spouses of other US citizens, spouses of U.S. armed forces under certain circumstances are eligible for expedited naturalization. Immediate relatives of U.S. armed forces members who die as a result of combat while in an active duty status may be eligible for certain "survivor" immigration benefits, including citizenship. In some cases even spouses of the US service personnel living abroad are eligible for overseas naturalization. However certain conditions apply like a minimum time period of three to five years in which the couple must have been living in marital union. Such conditions are put in place to minimize the chances of marriage fraud like contract marriages.

Historical context

Lawyers specializing in insurance and military law say that the concept of contract marriages is not exactly new. It began as early as the 1960s during the time of Vietnam and Korean Wars and in fact even gave rise to the slang of Westpac Widows referring to the women would spend time “out there playing in the bars” while their husbands were fighting overseas - incidentally neither party had any problem with it.

These days with the popularity of internet dating and personals sites, military contract marriages is much more openly advertised. Online personals like Craigslist.org often feature casual military contract-marriage proposals, each with their own matrimonial expectations and cash arrangements. Other  venues where parties talk about contract marriages may be bars and nightclubs in and around military bases or cities having military stations nearby.

Legal context

Contract marriage in the US military is a federal offense. If the military finds out about it, the service member can be charged with  conspiracy, marriage fraud and making a false statement to the government.. If both parties agreeing to the contract are service members, the punitive actions are even  harsher.  However the truth is, contract marriage is extremely difficult to prosecute, mostly because it is impossible to determine the true intent of the parties getting married. Regardless of intentions, a contract marriage is still a legal marriage. In order to charge a soldier with contract marriage, the onus of providing proof will be on the prosecutor – he/she will have to show evidence that the soldier didn’t get married for the ‘right’ reasons and in a society with fast changing social and personal mores, that is extremely difficult to do so.

In the end though along with punishments attendant to a federal offense, the very nature of a contract marriage should be enough to dissuade parties from entering into it. Such an arrangement goes against the very idea of a marriage which should bring two people together only in mutual love and trust and not for merely monetary or economic advantages. Finally everything about a relationship based on fraud should be suspect – if two people are getting married as a way of cheating the institutions of marriage and military, what is to prevent each of them from do the same to the other where money and benefits are concerned.  

References:

  1. LA Weekly - Marrying for Money
     
  2. Army Times - Ex-soldier testifies marriage was fraudulent