Groundbreaking legislation that would make it easier for military spouses to transfer their professional licenses when they make a military move is on President Joe Biden’s desk, waiting to be signed into law.

Under the Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act, licensing reciprocity between states would apply to all professions except the practice of law, which it specifically excludes. It would potentially remove the difficulties in dealing with some state licensing authorities. Defense officials calculate there are more than 132,000 active duty spouses in occupations that require licensing, representing about 39% of military spouses in the workforce, according to a December 2019 report.

For decades, military spouses have faced hassles in transferring their professional licenses when they move. It’s often expensive and time-consuming, causing large hits to the family income. The primary responsibility for these occupational licenses lies with states, and standards can vary widely.

“In the midst of one of the most challenging times of our military in terms of recruitment and retention, what this bill does is allow military spouses to cross-deck their professional licenses — if they’re a realtor, a nurse, a teacher, a beautician, a cosmetologist, whatever their profession is — across state lines,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., who introduced the bill in the House, and unsuccessfully tried to get the provision passed in 2021. The provision, which would amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, is included in the Veterans Auto and Education Improvement Act of 2022, and would go into effect when the bill is signed into law.

The Defense-State Liaison Office has worked for more than a decade on initiatives to make it easier for spouses to transfer professional licenses, but the Defense Department can only encourage states to take part; it has no control over them. Military officials have also helped develop interstate compacts for specific occupational licenses, working with professional organizations in those fields, but again it’s up to states to accept the terms and join these compacts. Some states have made significant strides, but the issue is complicated by the fact that states vary on the occupations that require licenses, with some having hundreds.

The legislation lays out basic requirements for license reciprocity:

It applies to service members or their spouses who have a covered professional license and relocate because of military orders to another jurisdiction. A covered license is defined as being in good standing with the licensing authority that issued it, and the holder must have actively used the license in the two years immediately preceding the relocation. State authorities in the new jurisdiction must accept the person’s application for a new license in the same discipline, and at a similar scope of practice, for the duration of the military orders.

The spouse/service member must:

♦ Provide a copy of the military orders to the new jurisdiction’s licensing authority;

♦ Remain in good standing with the licensing authority that issued the previous license, and with every other licensing authority that has issued a license with a similar scope of practice to that person;

♦ Abide by the rules of the licensing authority in the new jurisdiction in terms of standards of practice, discipline and meeting any continuing education requirements.

If there’s an interstate licensure compact in place, and the spouse/service member is licensed and able to operate in multiple jurisdictions through that compact, that compact will take precedent over this provision in federal law.

The Military Officers Association of America “remains supportive of the [Defense-State Liaison Office’s] efforts to develop interstate compacts, but we’re cautiously optimistic the portability of professional licenses provision contained in the Veterans Auto and Education Improvement Act will help close the gaps on states that are reluctant to sign onto these compacts,” said Jennifer Goodale, director of military spouse and family programs for the organization.

“While the landscape has improved for military spouses working in licensed or credentialed fields, more work is still needed to enable these spouses to maintain a career when PCSing across state lines,” she said.

Like Goodale, other advocates are optimistic about the potential, but there are questions.

“This is great news for military spouses and for service members,” said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “However, we’re concerned about how it will be implemented at the state level. I have a lot of questions.

“We want to break down barriers, not create barriers. We appreciate the work of the Veterans Affairs Committee. We just need to work with military spouses and monitor how this is implemented.”

Defense officials have, in the past, found inconsistencies in some states’ implementation of their own laws and regulations relating to license reciprocity for military spouses.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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