How Common are Military Contract Marriages?

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Contract marriages are one of the great myths of the military that is actually a little true but we don’t like to think about it — kind of like the broom on the porch myth or the myth of block leave (I kid about that last one … sort of). You hear about it or you have a friend who has a friend that totally lived next door to someone who did that. But you never really know about it first hand.

A military contract marriage is the practice of a service member marrying someone (sometimes another service member) just to land additional military benefits. For service members the housing allowance goes up after a marriage and those who would otherwise be living in the barracks are paid to move into family housing on or off base. For a civilian spouse, he or she gets health care and commissary privileges as well as access to a variety of other military benefits like employment help. And, like all marriages both in and out of the military, if the civilian spouse is not a U.S. citizen, he or she can apply for a green card based on the marriage.

All in all marrying the military is a pretty sweet gig.

Contract marriage? Marrying the military is a pretty sweet gig. And sometimes that's the only reason people marry into it. http://wp.me/p1d7d0-8Kn

There’s some evidence to suggest that contract marriages don’t happen as often as people think they do. Still, that they happen is widely considered something of an “open secret” — we know it’s there, we just don’t talk about it.

No surprise, scam marriages are totally illegal. But that doesn’t necessarily stop anyone from becoming part of one. It also doesn’t mean that military authorities can prove they are happening. Military officials have said time and again that getting married is a “private decision” and that commanders cannot question the motives behind the marriage without cause.

And even when they do — even when the marriages appear to be a part of a larger uncovered scheme — the conviction can be overturned because the court ruled that it is impossible to determine motive, as in the recent case of this Marine.

So what do you do if you think someone is in a contract marriage?

First, you could consider minding your own business. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)

But if you feel like you must notify someone, start with your service’s criminal investigation division (example: Army CID) either at your local base or through their tip email address, which you can find by Googling. But don’t be surprised if nothing ever happens: investigators often don’t actively investigate contract marriages unless they are uncovered as part of another crime.

Do you think contract marriages are common? Do you personally know of anyone who has been in one? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Amy Bushatz
Amy is the editor in chief of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is the managing editor of spouse and family content. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on CNN.com, NPR, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC and BBC as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.
  • RGP

    Before the repeal, gay officers used contract marriages to cover their lifestyle.

    • Heather

      I worked with a female NCO in the ANG who was married to an active duty Major. He was gay and his boyfriend lived with them. Yes, it does happen. Quite frankly, I don’t care what anyone’s reasons for getting married are. It really isn’t my business.

      • Guest

        Hopefully this type of arrangement can be a thing of the past with marriage equality nationwide. But really, agreed, none of anyone’s business.

    • Guest

      Oh, you mean they had to adopt the façade of a coupled hetero lifestyle to avoid persecution.

  • Melissa

    My husband and I were both active duty when we married and we worked together. All the people we worked with took bets on how long our “contract” marriage would last. Shame on them! We are still happily married 13 years later and almost all of our co-workers have since divorced. I guess it wasn’t a “contract marriage” after all, huh?!

  • Educated Guest

    It wouldn’t happen at all if they gave the guys and girls who live in the barracks Proper differential pay.

    Right now a guy who lives on a ship, with parking a mile away, no privacy, no way to prepare their own meals, no storage space, and nowhere to host a guest gets the same token partial BAH as a guy who lives in a three room apt style dorm with a full kitchen, storage, covered parking right out the door, and the ability to have guest over occasionally.

    To think those guys wouldn’t get married ASAP (contract or not) is madness.

    Lets stop these 18 year olds from making costly mistakes (both for themselves and the military), by increasing the partial BAH across the board, with bigger increases for those in substandard living conditions. We will surely save boatloads in medical expenses, EFMP costs, and readiness issues, by not incentivizing premature marriage.

    Yes I know dozens marry their HS Sweethearts and live happily ever after, I’m not worried about those guys, I’m worried about the rest.

  • Holly

    It happens. Alot more than people think. In fact, about 10 years ago I was asked if I wanted to be in a contract marriage with a Sailor out of Jacksonville. I laughed and thought nothing of it. The next week he was married to some other girl.

  • lifeofatravelingnavywife

    My former roommate (many years ago) did this very thing. They were married on April Fool’s Day and divorced shortly thereafter. I find it appalling.