United States Supreme Court Rules State Courts May Not Divest Veterans of Their Military Benefits in Property Distributions Consequent to Divorce

Today, the United States Supreme Court released its opinion in Howell v. Howell, holding in line with the pro bono amicus curiae brief submitted by Law Offices of Carson J. Tucker on behalf of Veterans of Foreign Wars and Operation Firing for Effect that state courts were preempted by federal law from divesting military veterans of their non-disposable retirement and disability pay to make up for losses to former spouses due to the military veteran’s waiver of his or her disposable retirement pay.

We will provide a more in-depth analysis of the opinion in future posts, but suffice it to say that the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion clearly rebukes those many, many states that have issued decisions in direct contravention of this rule of federal preemption. Our amicus curiae brief detailed the history of federal military benefits and explained the fundamental underlying reasons Congress’ authority in this area trumps all state court orders to the contrary. Indeed, the Court expressly says that State courts have no authority to vest these benefits in the former spouse whether or not they are received by the veteran before, during or long after divorce proceedings. This preemption is absolute and as Justice Thomas’ concurrence clarifies, there is no need to discuss the intent or purpose of federal statutes providing veterans benefits, because the authority to do so springs from the plain language of federal legislation providing veterans the exclusive right to these funds.

What must not be forgotten is despite the unanimous opinion and unequivocal admonishment to all those state courts that have, without authority, divested veterans of these benefits, the state of the law prior to this decision (since at least 1989) left thousands of veterans without the federal benefits to which they have been entitled. This has resulted in the unjust and, in many cases, irreversible consequence of leaving veterans who are physically and psychologically unable to continue working and living a normal life with little or no funds.

More later on this incredible and resounding victory for our armed forces personnel.

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