Tuesday, May 16, 2017
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the federal scheme covering service-member retirement and disability pay preempts a state court divorce decree that granted the former spouse of a retired service-member a portion of his disability benefits.
The ruling in Howell v. Howell settles a split in the state courts.
The case involves the way that federal law provides for veterans' retirement and disability pay, and the way that state courts can divide that pay in a divorce. Under federal law, a qualified veteran receives taxable retirement pay. A qualified veteran can also receive nontaxable disability pay. But if a veteran opts to receive disability pay, the disability pay off-sets his or her retirement pay dollar for dollar, so that the total amount of pay remains the same. Still, most veterans who qualify for disability pay opt for disability pay, because it's not taxed.
Under the federal Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act of 1982, a state may treat a veteran's retirement pay as divisible property in a divorce. But the Act explicitly excludes disability pay from divisible retirement pay. The Supreme Court ruled in Mansell v. Mansell that a state court cannot divide disability pay in a divorce when the veteran received both retirement pay and disability pay before the divorce. (The Court held that the Act preempted a state court ruling to the contrary.) Howell tested whether the Act compelled this same result when a veteran opted for disability pay well after the divorce. (The difference matters, because the spouse in Howell would take a cut in total payments if the same rule applied when the veteran spouse opted for disability pay after the divorce.)
The unanimous Court (Justice Gorsuch recused) held that the same rule applied, whether the veteran spouse opted for disability pay before the divorce or after. The Court said that Mansell dictated the result, and that the different timing didn't matter: "the temporal difference highlights only that John's military retirement pay at the time it came to Sandra was subject to later reduction (should John exercise a waiver to receive disability benefits to which he is entitled)."
The Court also rejected the theory that the state court could "reimburse" or "indemnify" the spouse, rather than outright dividing the disability pay: "The difference is semantic and nothing more. . . . Regardless of their form, such reimbursement and indemnification orders displace the federal rule and stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the purposes and objectives of Congress." (Justice Thomas concurred but wrote separately to disagree with this latter portion of the ruling--on "purposes and objectives" pre-emption. "As I have previously explained, '[t]hat framework is an illegitimate basis for finding the pre-emption of state law.'")
The Court recognized the "hardship" that this result may "work on divorcing spouses," and noted that state courts might take this into account when it calculates the need for spousal support.