Sanctuary In The Reserves: Only On Active Duty


I’m getting a lot of sanctuary e-mail, and it’s partly because some of today’s Reserve and National Guard servicemembers are approaching 6574 points– nearly 18 years of service.

Here’s three questions from readers wondering whether they can claim sanctuary.

(Spoiler: No.)

Question #1:

I currently have 30 years of service (13 active and 17 reserves) with 6405 points. I’m considering applying for sanctuary next year. I’d like to know which scenario would benefit me more financially if I retire as active duty with 20 years (if I get sanctuary status) or as a gray area reservist.

Question #2:

I understand that Reservists who’ve earned at least 7200 retirement points by their last day of Reserve duty, become eligible for an immediate active duty retirement. If so, will they immediately receive retirement pay for BOTH the accumulated active duty points AND the inactive duty points, or must they wait through the “grey area” for the inactive duty points?
Does accumulating 7300 total points of inactive duty points and active duty time and over 20 satisfactory years warrant an active duty retirement right away or does the member still collect at age 60?

I have gotten mixed reviews on this one and have been wondering about it. I’ve talked to folks in D.C. and even they say 7300 points is the magic number to hit no matter what combination of Active and Reserve time you have.

Question #3:

I was reading your blog about Reserve retirements. I see that someone asked a question about a Reservist accumulating 20 active years and how to figure their retirement pay. I fall into that category too. I would love to correspond with you so you could help me understand what retirement pay I will be entitled to after my 20 active years and 24 years of good service total.
Between my seven years of regular active duty and my slew of Reserve voluntary active duty orders at other commands, in a few months I will have 20 actual active years of service.
Ever since I was close to 16 years of active service, I have been required to sign a sanctuary waiver in order to be allowed to come on orders. That was so I would not claim sanctuary after I had 18 years of active service.

However, I have been blessed enough that I will achieve the 20 active years!
At the beginning of next year I will have 7629 points.


The most important sanctuary rule

Sanctuary comes from federal law Title 10 U.S. Code section 12686. It’s deceptively simple: if you’re a Reservist on active duty (not for training!) who goes over 18 years of points (while on active duty), then you get to stay on active duty until you’re eligible for an active-duty retirement at 20 years.

Yes: sanctuary only happens when you’re on active duty.

It’s also derived from a broader protection of federal law (Title 10 U.S. Code section 1176) regarding involuntary discharge. Every member of the military (on active duty) who’s within two years of retirement is entitled to stay on active duty until they’re eligible for their active-duty pension.

That’s how the urban legends start. People think that they’ll qualify for sanctuary if they have 18 years of points, or 18 good years, or more than 6574 points, or by being on any kind of Reserve orders. Or maybe they know someone who heard of someone who manipulated the Reserve bureaucracy into issuing orders and then ambushed the chain of command by claiming sanctuary for an immediate active-duty retirement. Winning!

No. There are no conspiracy theories, either.

I’ll highlight the important points of sanctuary in the next few paragraphs, and at the end of this post I’ll link to your service’s applicable instructions and information sheets. Please read the “Related posts” section at the bottom for more sanctuary topics which are beyond the scope of this post.


When your service really needs you.

The most important aspect of sanctuary is that it only happens when your service has an urgent need for your skills. It’s not a reward for your years of Reserve duty or mobilizations. It’s because the military needs a trauma surgeon right now or a combat-experienced officer to fill a critical watchbill position on a joint warfare commander’s staff. Those are servicemembers I personally know who’ve claimed sanctuary, or who have written me to share what they’ve learned from it.

Another critical aspect of sanctuary is that it costs your service a lot of money. When you apply for a Reserve retirement, your service is allowed to have your pension paid out of DoD funds. However DoD will not pay the bill for a sanctuary-related pension. When a service decides that they need to mobilize you into sanctuary, they have to be willing to buy it out of their own money. When a Reserve or Guard member claims sanctuary and “upgrades” from a Reserve pension to an active-duty pension, DoD makes the service pay the active-duty pension out of their own personnel funds until the retiree reaches age 60. When your service gives you a sanctuary “sweet deal”, it’s because they’re fixing a crisis.


What actually happens when you have a high point count.

A side effect of avoiding this expense is that the Reserve and Guard personnel staff spend a lot of time and money tracking your point count. If you go over 16 years of points then you’re placed in a special database to make sure that your service doesn’t inadvertently enable you to reach sanctuary. Any orders for longer than 29 days have to be approved at higher levels of the chain of command. Any orders that would put you into sanctuary status have to be approved by your service’s personnel general or admiral.

A common misconception is that sanctuary happens on any sort of orders. The reality is that a servicemember has to be mobilized and on active duty when they cross the 18-year line into sanctuary. These orders are not AT or ADT or any sort of training orders. (This was a subject of at least one sanctuary lawsuit.) The servicemember also has to agree to stay on active duty until they’re eligible for a regular active-duty retirement, and they’re issued a new set of orders to take them to that date. They can’t be extended past 20 years for any other reason– unless they leave their Reserve/Guard status and apply for permanent active-duty status.

A final misconception is that the military has to approve sanctuary. Even if you’re approved for mobilization orders, you could still be required to sign a waiver of “your” sanctuary rights. No waiver, then no orders… and no sanctuary. Waiving your right to sanctuary is also controversial but it’s in federal law (for mobilizations less than 180 days) and it’s been tested in court. You might still want the mobilization orders for a compelling mission and the experience and the boost to your career (and maybe even the pay)– but you won’t reach sanctuary.

During your Reserve/Guard career you can rack up more than 20 good years or go over 6574 points. (It’s not easy but Reader #3 shows it can be done.) You could do all the drill weekends and training orders you want, even if your “training” is flying an Air National Guard tanker mission for active-duty aircraft. But unless you’re mobilized on active-duty orders of more than 29 days, you won’t make sanctuary or be eligible for an active-duty retirement. Even when you meet all of the conditions, your service may ask you to waive your right to sanctuary.

What happens with the three readers at the start of this post?

Reader #1 could request mobilization, but he’s already being tracked for sanctuary status (and he was probably added to that database when he crossed 5840 points). Even if he has a unique skill in high demand, he’ll only be mobilized if there’s a critical mission– and then he’ll be asked to sign a waiver for 179-day orders. He’ll go over 18 years of points, but no sanctuary. He’ll eventually apply for a Reserve retirement.

Reader #2 is now a lot smarter on federal law and the DoD sanctuary system. He knows where to look it up in the references and in his service’s instructions instead of relying on the tribal lore of “the folks in DC”. He also understands that it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll ever reach sanctuary, and he’s expecting a Reserve pension instead of an active-duty one.

Reader #3 loves what she does, and she gets a lot of short-term active-duty orders. (Contact me if you want the details on where to live and how to find these orders.) Her sanctuary status was tracked as soon as she crossed 16 years of points, and she’s all too familiar with the sanctuary waivers.


The real goal: financial independence

Yet Readers #1 and #3 might already be financially independent. All of their Reserve duty has given them a very high point count and a High-Three Reserve pension at age 60. (In her case, it’s at least 53% of her High Three pay base.) This means that they could reach financial independence by saving and investing enough in their TSPs, Roth IRAs, and taxable accounts to live on until their pension starts. (If they need to, they can tap their TSPs and Roth IRAs penalty-free before age 59.5.) They really only need enough assets to bridge the gap until their Reserve retirement starts, and then their inflation-fighting pensions (with cheap healthcare) could cover most of their expenses for the rest of their lives.

They’ve already won the game in the fourth quarter, and now they’re just running up the score.

If you’re saving and investing for financial independence, then you can too.


Links to your service’s sanctuary instructions and policies:

The DoD sanctuary policy
The Army sanctuary information sheet (downloads a PDF)
The Navy sanctuary links from the Reserve page (SECNAVINST 1800.2 and OPNAVINST 1001.27 on the Personnel Command page)
The Marine Corps sanctuary instruction
The Air Force Sanctuary instruction


Related articles:

Military Reserve Sanctuary And Active-Duty Retirement
Sanctuary And Military Retirement During A Reserve Career
Sanctuary And Military Mobilization
Military Reserve Sanctuary Retirement And Time In Grade
Early Withdrawals From Your TSP And Your IRA After The Military

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free.

I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy’s submarine force. I wrote “The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement” to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

  1. Reply
    Anthony Soika April 14, 2017 at 1:48 PM

    I am a regular army officer with 27 years total service (15 active, 12 guard and reserve). Am I eligible to apply for a reserve retirement if I am not currently a reservist? In other words, I understand that I will not receive the pension until I’m 60, but can I drop the retirement packet and enter the “gray area” now without having to transition to the RC first?

    • Reply
      Doug Nordman April 16, 2017 at 11:35 AM

      Great question, Anthony! The answer is “probably”. The law was changed in 2005 and you no longer have to serve in a Reserve unit for the years before you apply for a Reserve retirement.

      More details are at this post:

      The Reserves might have stopped tracking your data after you went on active duty (and never demobilized) so they may have to catch up with the active-duty databases. If you do not already have a Notice Of Eligibility from your Reserve service then obtain that first, and after that good-year and point-count verification you should be able to apply for retired awaiting pay.

  2. Reply
    Jason Fuller March 13, 2017 at 11:07 AM

    There is one place in the USAFR where it is possible to waive sanctuary and still reach 7305 days for an active duty retirement. Due to RPA manning shortfalls, RPA pilots and sensor operators are able to get 1095 days of continuous MPA orders as a TR. I separated at 17 years and one month, with Palace Front into the reserves as a TR, so 1095 will take me one month past 20. I still have to sign sanctuary waivers, but I’m about to hit 19 and the mission is busy as ever. It’s rolling the dice as my orders could be unfunded at any time, but I don’t see that happening. In fact they are about to apply for a 1095 waiver so I can get another 365.


    • Reply
      Doug Nordman March 16, 2017 at 11:50 AM

      Just to make the vocabulary more precise, Jason, I realize that you’ll reach 20 years of points as well as 20 good years, but waiving sanctuary means that you’ll earn a Reserve retirement (at about age 60) instead of an active-duty retirement in a little over a year.

      I’m not familiar with how the RPA program law affects a military pension, but Palace Front & Palace Chase are intended to lead to Reserve retirements:

      On the other hand some AGR billets do lead to an active-duty retirement because the servicemember is allowed to claim sanctuary.

      Whether a pension comes from active duty or from the Reserve/Guard, you have a challenging/fulfilling billet with cheap health insurance and a lifetime inflation-adjusted annuity. The non-regular pension means that your assets have to bridge your expenses to age 60 (or a little sooner in some cases), but you still win the game either way.

  3. Reply
    Doug Nordman January 28, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    Thanks, Leftbucket, that’s exactly right!

    This type of sanctuary also comes from federal law (Title 10 sections 1176 and 12646). If a Reserve/Guard member reaches 18 good years then they have to be continued in the Reserves for the opportunity to reach 20 good years.

    It means that they cannot be separated before qualifying for a Reserve/Guard retirement, but they could still lose their drill billet and be put in the Volunteer Training Unit or IMA or IRR. The burden to perform (and obtain good years) is still on the servicemember.

  4. Reply
    leftbucket January 27, 2016 at 5:28 PM


    Thanks for all your detailed work here. I know you’ve been keeping your finger on the pulse of this
    for a while. As a note of clarification, I think it’s worth pointing out to some readers that there can indeed be a “reserve sanctuary” as well: designed for ensuring a member with 18 good reserve years can get to 20. As an example, readers can see the Air Force Instruction you have appropriately linked, page 12 for details on how this works.

    Thanks again for tackling this complicated subject.


  5. Reply
    Doug Nordman January 16, 2016 at 6:28 AM

    Thanks, Bridget, you’re absolutely right!

    Congress and DoD have to treat that as a revenue-neutral change, and there has been insufficient interest in cutting other programs to fund early retirement for those mobilized between 9/11 and 28 Jan 2008.

  6. Reply
    Deserat January 15, 2016 at 7:09 AM


    Thank you for this post….you are absolutely correct. I was a Reserve squadron commander and we would have people sign sanctuary waivers quite often and we would *not* allow them to come on active orders unless they signed the waiver. This was one thing that was part of my duties as a G Series orders commander and my personnel section also made sure we did not bring anyone on orders if they didn’t sign that piece of paper.

    Now, if those people who have that many points have done duty since 1 Oct 2008 in for 90 days in a year in Title 10 service status, they can have their Reserve retirement earlier by 90 days for every 90 days of service, so they could receive their pension before they become 60 years of age. They would not get the healthcare coverage, but they would get the early receipt of their pension.

    Unfortunately, the law that authorized the early receipt did not roll back to 9/11/2001. I surmise it would have cost too much $$$ if the DoD or Congress had authorized it – if so, I would be getting my pension at least three years earlier. Alas, it is not to be.


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