U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

 
Office of Allowances
Per Diem Rates
Allowance Rates
Standardized Regulations (DSSR)
General Information
Quarterly Report Indexes
 •
 
 
 

Answers To Frequently Asked Questions About
Separate Maintenance Allowances

Questions:

1.  Q. – What is Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA)?

2.  Q - At what age must Voluntary SMA terminate for a dependent child?

3  Q - At what age must Involuntary SMA terminate for a dependent child?

4.  Q - If an eligible family member on SMA travels to the post at personal expense, will the department assume any responsibility in the case of emergency?

5.  Q - As a follow up to the above question, I brought my dependent child to post on USG travel orders. Due to adjustment problems, I elected to send him back to the U.S. under SMA orders so that he could stay with his grandparents and attend public school. Now my son has decided that he wants to return to post and attend the American international school. The post’s finance officer informed me that the government will not pay for his return transportation to post, nor will it pay his tuition at the international school. Is this correct?

6.  Q - What constitutes a tour of duty?

7.  Q - My spouse or domestic partner is a foreign service officer currently assigned to the Department of State in Washington, D.C. and I am assigned to an unaccompanied foreign post. Can I claim Involuntary SMA (ISMA) for my spouse or domestic partner in the United States? Can I claim ISMA for my 15 year old son who is currently residing with my spouse or domestic partner?

8.  Q -  (1) My spouse or domestic partner is a foreign national and is living in a third country. Is my spouse or domestic partner eligible for SMA? Q(2) Are there limitations on where family members on SMA choose to live?

9.  Q - An employee's eligible family members recently returned to the U.S. under SMA orders. The employee is now asking if she can ship part of her household effects (HHE) and airfreight back to the U.S. for her dependents' use. Is shipment of HHE allowable under this circumstance?

10.  Q - What happens when an employee receiving SMA is transferred to another post?

11.  Q - Three months after an employee’s spouse or domestic partner departed post under SMA orders, the employee informed post management that the spouse or domestic partner initiated separation/divorce/dissolution action shortly after returning to the U.S. The employee requested continuation of SMA because the employee has been ordered to pay separate maintenance to the spouse or domestic partner. Is this proper?

12.  Q - Please provide the titles of the officials who are authorized to approve or disapprove an employee’s SMA request.

13.  Q - My family is currently on SMA and is scheduled to visit post during the holiday period. Will my SMA payments terminate while they are at post?

14.  Q - The Department of State has just terminated the authorized/ordered departure ("evacuation") for my post. Employees and dependents have been advised to return to post. My family was originally evacuated to the U.S. and my daughter was enrolled in kindergarten. Can I leave my family in the U.S. until the end of the school year and request SMA for them?

15.  Q - Ok, I finally understand the SMA regulations. I have signed the SF-1190 and the required certification statements. Is there anything else that I need to sign before submitting the documents for processing?

16.  Q - I am receiving SMA for my child.  Is my child eligible for educational travel?

17.  Q - I am receiving SMA for my child.  Is my child eligible for an education allowance?

18.  Q - If an employee gets married or acquires a domestic partner while on R&R, his/her spouse or domestic partner is entitled to airfare from the “point of acquisition” back to post. However, what if the newly acquired spouse or domestic partner returns to his/her original place of residence (where they go on SMA immediately). Does the regulation authorize the government to pay for the ticket?

19.  Q - Post had an ordered departure effective March of a particular year. As of May of the same year all employees have returned to post except one who is still in the U.S.  Since the employee has been in this status for almost two months, should SMA continue?

20.  Q - The spouse or domestic partner of an employee is residing in the US. When an employee transfers from a foreign post to the U.S., the SMA will be terminated. Does this mean the employee is eligible to receive the "with family" amount for the miscellaneous portion of the Home Service Transfer Allowance, or does the employee get the "without family" amount? Also in calculating the subsistence expense portion of the HSTA, should the spouse or domestic partner be included in the calculation or does it apply only to the employee?

 

1. Q – What is Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA)?

A – SMA is an allowance that may be granted to an employee whenever the head of agency determines that the employee is compelled to maintain any or all members of family elsewhere than at the post of assignment because of the following circumstances:

Involuntary SMA (ISMA) – For the convenience of the U.S. Government when dangerous notably unhealthful, or excessively adverse living conditions warrant the exclusion of family from accompanying an employee to the post of assignment. (DSSR 262.1)

Voluntary SMA (VSMA) – When an employee requests SMA for special needs or hardship prior to or after arrival at posts for reasons including but not limited to career, health, educational, or family considerations for the spouse or domestic partner, children or other family member. (DSSR 262.2)

Transitional SMA (TSMA) – Following the termination of an evacuation [(a) thru (c)] or in connection with commencement/termination of an unaccompanied tour [(d) and (e)]: (a) conversion of a post to an unaccompanied status; (b) reversion of post to accompanied status for educational consideration; (c) reversion of post to accompanied status for other situations; (d) when family members must depart from an accompanied foreign post because employee's next foreign post is unaccompanied; or (e) when family members on ISMA prepare to depart ISMA point for employee's new foreign or domestic post (accompanied). (DSSR 262.3 a. – e)

 2.  Q - At what age must voluntary SMA terminate for a dependent child?

A - Voluntary SMA must be terminated on a child’s 18th birthday, unless the child is attending secondary school (grades 9-12) or is determined to be incapable of self-support (due to physical or mental impairment). See 264.2(1)c.

3.  Q - At what age must involuntary SMA terminate for a dependent child?

A - Involuntary SMA must be terminated on a child’s 21st birthday, unless (1) the child is attending secondary school (grades 9-12); or (2) the child is determined to be incapable of self-support (due to physical or mental impairment). A child who is in post-secondary school/college and not currently working is not considered to be incapable of self-support.   

4.  Q - If an eligible family member on SMA travels to the post at personal expense, will the department assume any responsibility in the case of emergency?

A - When an eligible family member travels to the employee’s post at his/her personal expense, the family member is considered to be a private citizen visiting the country. As such, that family member is not eligible for any allowances or benefits paid on behalf of family members of USG civilian employees, including any medical emergency evacuation travel. However, if the employee has not previously used the one change of option per tour (voluntary SMA), he/she might be permitted to do so once an emergency arises. 

5.  Q - As a follow up to the above question, I brought my dependent child to post on USG travel orders. Due to adjustment problems, I elected to send him back to the U.S. under SMA orders so that he could stay with his grandparents and attend public school. Now my son has decided that he wants to return to post and attend the American international school. The post’s finance officer informed me that the government will not pay for his return transportation to post, nor will it pay his tuition at the international school. Is this correct?

A - Yes. It is important that employees carefully consider their options before applying for SMA. When you took your son to post on government orders, this action constituted the initial election. When you elected to place your son on SMA during the tour, this action represented the one change of status and no further changes can be made during the tour. You can elect to return your son to post at your own personal expense. The tuition at the international school would be at your personal expense as well.

  6.  Q - What constitutes a tour of duty?

A - The Department of State considers the length of service at a post to be a tour of duty. An extension of duty at the same post does not confer on the employee a new set of SMA options. Note: employees from other agencies should consult with their agency headquarters for guidance on this issue.

 7.  Q - My spouse or domestic partner is a foreign service officer currently assigned to the Department of State in Washington, D.C. and I am assigned to an unaccompanied foreign post. Can I claim involuntary SMA (ISMA) for my spouse or domestic partner in the United States?  Can I claim ISMA for my 15 year old son who is currently residing with my spouse or domestic partner ?

A - Per DSSR 263.2 married couple employees or domestic partnership employees are ineligible for ISMA when the spouse or domestic partner of an employee is either a member of the military services or is a USG civilian employee subject to worldwide assignment availability.  Also, you do not qualify for ISMA on your son's behalf even though he was previously on your orders.  However, if the civilian spouse or domestic partner (career or probationary career employee) is in leave without pay status (LWOP), he/she would be considered a dependent and therefore eligible for ISMA.  In this case, your son would also be eligible for ISMA. 

8.  Q - (1) My spouse or domestic partner is a foreign national and is living in a third country. Is my spouse or domestic partner eligible for SMA?   Q(2) Are there limitations on where family members on SMA choose to live?

A (1)- Yes your spouse or domestic partner may be eligible for SMA as long as you can determine that the spouse or domestic partner would “normally reside” with the employee other than for the reason given requesting payment of the SMA.

A (2) - Family members cannot reside in the same country or within 300 miles (one way road mileage) from the employee under Voluntary SMA (note: this restriction does not apply to Involuntary SMA). Family members who personally elect to reside in a foreign area are considered under the DSSR to be officially residing in the United States.

  9.  Q - An employee’s eligible family members recently returned to the U.S. under SMA orders. The employee is now asking if she can ship part of her household effects (HHE) and airfreight back to the U.S. for her dependents’ use. Is shipment of HHE allowable under this circumstance?

A - Yes, however, employees should review agency regulations for limits. For Foreign Affairs Agencies refer to volume 14 Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) 613.8 for guidance.

 

10.  Q - What happens when an employee receiving SMA is transferred to another post?

A - When an employee is transferred, SMA must be terminated (DSSR 266.2). The employee may then elect to apply for SMA at the new post or have family members included on the travel orders (if an accompanied post).

 

11. Q - Three months after an employee’s spouse or domestic partner departed post under SMA orders, the employee informed post management that the spouse or domestic partner initiated separation/divorce/dissolution action shortly after returning to the U.S. The employee requested continuation of SMA because the employee has been ordered to pay separate maintenance to the spouse or domestic partner. Is this proper?

A - No. Post management should terminate SMA payments and seek full reimbursement from the employee. When the employee completed the remarks box of the SF-1190, he/she certified in their statement that the request for SMA (1) for a spouse was not the result of voluntary legal separation or divorce decree, whether limited, interlocutory, or final; or (2) for a domestic partner was not the result of dissolution of the domestic partnership. Employee and spouse: A legal separation is deemed to exist at such time as either the employee or spouse initiated action affecting the status of the marriage, including (1) a divorce/dissolution action, (2) a separate maintenance action, or (3) any type of formal or informal written agreement, such as a property settlement agreement, indicating legal separation. A separate maintenance action is one against a spouse for permanent or temporary support and maintenance for the moving spouse, and for support, maintenance and education of minor children.  Employee and domestic partner: A dissolution is deemed to occur at such time as either the employee or domestic partner initiated action affecting the status of the domestic partnership, including (1) a divorce/dissolution action, (2) a separate maintenance action, or (3) any type of formal or informal written agreement, such as a property settlement agreement, indicating dissolution or legal separation. A separate maintenance action is one against a domestic partner for permanent or temporary support or maintenance for the moving domestic partner, and for support, maintenance and education of minor children.   .

12.   Q - Please provide the titles of the officials who are authorized to approve or disapprove an employee’s SMA request.

A - Employees must check with their agencies for officials who are authorized to approve/disapprove SMA. Within the foreign affairs agencies, the following officials are authorized to approve SMA requests for their respective agencies (see 3 FAM 3232 and 3FAH-1 H3232.2 for additional instructions):

State Department - Executive Director of the appropriate bureau
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) --See ADS 477  
USDA--FAS -- Director, International Services Staff
Department of Commerce--Director, Office of Foreign Service Human Resources

Only the following officials can disapprove SMA applications for their respective foreign affairs agencies:

State Department - Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Resources
USAID--See ADS 477
USDA--FAS -- Deputy Administrator, Foreign Agricultural Affairs
Department of Commerce--the Director General or Appropriate Secretarial Officer.

13.  Q - My family is currently on SMA and is scheduled to visit post during the holiday period. Will my SMA payments terminate while they are at post?

A - SMA payments may continue during the family members’ visit to post when the visit is expected to be for thirty consecutive days or less and the number of days each of your family members stayed at the post has not exceeded 90 days during one 12 month period (DSSR 265.4). The family members must be en route to the SMA point by the 31st day.  If the visit to post is expected to last for more than 30 days, the SMA payments must be suspended from the day family members arrive at the foreign post.  SMA payments may be resumed effective the day the employee’s family members depart post en route to the SMA point unless the 90 day maximum stay in the 12 month period has been reached. 

Each family member on SMA is treated individually for the 90 day stay at post maximum.  Once the 90 day maximum stay at post is reached for each family member, SMA is terminated for that family member and no further allowances/benefits may be paid on behalf of the family members whose SMA has been terminated for the remainder of the employee's current tour of duty.

14.  Q - The Department of State has just terminated the authorized/ordered departure ("evacuation") for my post. Employees and dependents have been advised to return to post. My family was originally evacuated to the U.S. and my daughter was enrolled in kindergarten. Can I leave my family in the U.S. until the end of the school year and request SMA for them?

A - Yes.

Two SMA options are available depending on the length of time remaining in the current school year and whether the family is in commercial or non-commercial housing at the safehaven location.  Commercial housing is considered a hotel, motel, commercially-leased house or apartment, or other transient-type commercial establishment.  Non-commercial housing is considered private such as living with family, friends or others in a location which is not commercially leased or rented.

Option 1:  TSMA, possibly followed by VSMA

If the child is in the last semester of the current school year and the family is in commercial quarters, DSSR 262.3b "Transitional SMA" may be requested.  TSMA may last for up to 90 calendar days and the TSMA rates are at DSSR 267.1b.  If the days left in the semester are more than 90 days, then the remainder of the SMA days (following the 90 paid at the TSMA rate) are paid according to DSSR 264.2 (2) "Exception" and the "Voluntary SMA" rates at DSSR 267.1a.     

Option 2:  VSMA

If the child is not in the last semester of the current school year then Voluntary SMA is the only option available.  DSSR 264.2(2) provides the following guidance: following termination of an authorized/ordered departure an employee may elect voluntary SMA at the official safehaven for family members previously eligible for SEA payments under DSSR chapter 600 and for whom round-trip travel expenses have already been authorized. The employee may be permitted to then terminate this voluntary SMA at the end of the school year and these family members may be permitted to return to post provided return travel to post does not occur during the employee's last 90 days at a post of assignment.  Note: this election for voluntary SMA does not constitute the one change of option during a tour of duty.

  15.  Q - Ok, I finally understand the SMA regulations. I have signed the SF-1190 and the required certification statements. Is there anything else that I need to sign before submitting the documents for processing?

A - Yes. For foreign affairs agencies, before any obligation of government funds is incurred for SMA travel, the employee must execute a repayment agreement in accordance with the format in 14 FAM Exhibit 532.3-4. The original and one copy should be forwarded to the Department of State by memorandum, subject: APER. For USAID, forward to M/PM, USAID/W as an attachment to a memorandum. Employees should review 14 FAM 532.3-5 for repayment requirements. Employees from other agencies should contact their headquarters for guidance.

16.   Q - I am receiving SMA for my child. Is my child eligible for educational travel?

A - No. When a child is on SMA, he/she is not eligible for educational travel.  Also, when a child travels on educational travel at the secondary level, they are not eligible for SMA for the 12-month period following that travel/trip (DSSR 263.6).

17.  Q - I am receiving SMA for my child.  Is my child eligible for an education allowance?

A - DSSR 276.42 states that when a foreign post is designated as the official involuntary SMA location, a child may be eligible for an education allowance for that location.  Unless specifically designated otherwise by the head of agency, family members on voluntary SMA are considered to be officially residing in the U.S.  However, when SMA is granted for the convenience of the Government (involuntary SMA), and a foreign area is designated as the official SMA location, a child authorized to be residing at that location can be authorized an education allowance within the applicable "school at post" education allowance established in DSSR 920 for the child's authorized SMA location.

18.  Q - If an employee gets married or acquires a domestic partner while on R&R, his/her spouse or domestic partner is entitled to airfare from the “point of acquisition” back to post. However, what if the newly acquired spouse or domestic partner returns to his/her original place of residence (where they go on SMA immediately). Does the regulation authorize the government to pay for the ticket?

A - If the new spouse or domestic partner will not be traveling from place of marriage/acquisition to post, the government would not amend the employee’s orders to authorize travel of spouse or domestic partner at that time. This would be considered the employee’s initial election point for voluntary SMA. At a later date if status changes and the SMA is terminated (but not in the first or last 90 days of the employee’s tour), the government could authorize travel to the current post. If SMA is not terminated in the current tour, the spouse or domestic partner could be added on the next tour from the place of acquisition to the next assignment.

19. Q - Post had an ordered departure effective March of a particular year.  As of May of the same year all employees have returned to post except one who is still in the U.S.    Since the employee has been in this status for almost two months, should SMA continue?

A - Per DSSR 265.3, the grant shall continue during the absence of the employee from the post provided the employee maintains quarters at the post, unless terminated under the provisions of sections 266.2 or 266.3.

20.  Q - The spouse or domestic partner of an employee is residing in the US. When an employee transfers from a foreign post to the U.S., the SMA will be terminated. Does this mean the employee is eligible to receive the "with family" amount for the miscellaneous portion of the Home Service Transfer Allowance, or does the employee get the "without family" amount?  Also in calculating the subsistence expense portion of the HSTA, should the spouse or domestic partner be included in the calculation or does it apply only to the employee

A - Per DSSR 252.8, family members for whom an SMA was authorized while the employee was in a foreign area, shall not be considered members of the family for the purpose of the home service transfer allowance unless official transportation was authorized permitting those family members to join the employee at the new post of assignment in the US.  This provision is rare and would normally apply when the official SMA point were approved for a foreign location and the US Government was subsequently obligated to transport the family members from the official foreign SMA location to the employee's next post of assignment (in this scenario, back to the U.S.).

 

21.  Q - My spouse or domestic partner stayed behind to have a baby and arrived at post four months after me. I was not aware that I was eligible for SMA until after the fact. Can I still receive SMA?

A - The Department does not have the authority to retroactively pay a discretionary allowance. SMA is discretionary and is authorized prospectively (“may be granted”) and therefore cannot be paid retroactively.