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When can the military punish servicemembers for adultery?

On Behalf of | Apr 1, 2024 | UCMJ Defense

There are numerous rules that apply to military service members that would have no bearing on the average civilian. For example, the military has ruled against adultery included in the Uniform Military Code of Justice (UMCJ).

Those rules can lead to penalties possibly including a court-martial that results in incarceration and dishonorable discharge in some scenarios. Those who have had a difficult marriage may worry that they could face career consequences for the failure of a personal relationship or that their former spouse might vindictively try to damage their career.

When can a military servicemember’s infidelity potentially lead to career consequences and military discipline?

Rules about adultery have changed

The military approach to adultery was once overly simplistic. Essentially, adultery rules only applied during traditional heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Same-sex relationships and relationships that involve alternate forms of physical intimacy may not have violated the prior rule.

However, the UMCJ has since revised the definition of adultery. Now applies to even same-sex intimate relationships in theory. However, the trade-off for that change is that legal or formal separation could potentially protect someone from military discipline now. Previously, only the finalization of a divorce would end the risk of discipline related to adultery. Now, living separately can potentially protect a service member from claims that they conducted an extramarital affair.

On-duty infractions are more serious

There needs to be evidence of the sexual relationship for someone to face consequences. Their actions also have to affect their service. While the military does hold servicemembers to a high ethical standard, the most serious infractions involve dereliction of duty.

Those conducting extramarital affairs often have to sneak around to avoid detection by their spouses. They might therefore arrange to have meetups or trysts while they are technically on the job. Those working on base who neglected their duties to leave and meet with someone or have a furtive encounter could be at greater risk of a court-martial and serious penalties than someone who only engaged in misconduct on their own time.

Allegations of adultery typically can only be pursued if there is sufficient evidence to build a case. Concerns ranging from a spouse’s investigation to mobile phone records could potentially implicate a military servicemember. Those accused of violating the UMCJ have the right to representation during court-martial proceedings and other disciplinary actions. Having the right support and learning more about military rules may benefit those accused of violations that could end their careers.