Military spouses seek residency benefits

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.

On the Net:

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act: http://tinyurl.com/pmlwdb