UPDATE – Howell v. Howell – Supreme Court Rules State Courts Have No Authority to Divest Military Veterans of Retirement and Disability Benefits

As a follow up on our bulletin yesterday we provide the following summary of the Supreme Court unanimous (8-0-1) opinion in Howell v. Howell, agreeing with the “friend of the court” brief written by Carson J. Tucker for Veterans of Foreign Wars and Operation Firing for Effect.

On May 15, 2017, the United States Supreme Court released its opinion in the case of Howell v. Howell, Supreme Court Case No. 15-1031. In a unanimous 8-0 decision (Gorsuch, J., not participating), the Court held that state courts were pre-empted 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. This decision, the Court ruled, was dictated by pre-existing federal law as enunciated in 1981 by the Court in McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210 (1981), the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act (USFSPA), 10 U.S.C. § 1401, et seq., and Mansell v. Mansell, 490 U.S. 581 (1989).

This decision is significant in several respects. First, the Court held that state courts had no authority to order a veteran to indemnify or reimburse a former spouse for the loss of his or her portion of the veteran’s disposable retirement pay when the veteran exercises his or her right to waive that pay to receive service-related disability. This, the Court held applied whether the veteran waived his retirement pay before, during, or, as in this case, long after the divorce. In support of this holding, the Court reasoned that Mansell v. Mansell, the USFSPA and pre-existing federal law completely pre-empted the states from treating waived military retirement pay as divisible community property.

Second, relying on 38 U.S.C. § 5301, the Court addressed the former spouse’s argument that she had a “vested interest” in the property of the veteran such that the state court had authority to force the veteran to part with his military benefits to make up for the amount she lost as a result of his post-divorce waiver. The Court specifically stated: “State courts cannot ‘vest’ that which (under governing federal law – again citing 38 U.S.C. § 5301) they lack authority to give.”

Third, the Court rejected any state court orders trying to get around the restrictions of the USFSPA and Mansell by characterizing the payments to the former spouse as indemnification or reimbursements. To all those multitude of state courts that have been violating the law for the last 30 years the Court said simply: “Regardless of their form, such…orders displace the federal rule and stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the purposes and objectives of Congress.” The Court concluded: “All such orders are thus pre-empted.

Finally, the Court reiterated, as OFFE and VFW had urged in their amicus curiae brief, that the “basic reason” of federal law for why Congress intended to exempt military retirement pay from state community and equitable property laws applies to disability pay. The Court also made sure in its opinion to state, unequivocally and without reservation that McCarty’s rule of pre-emption was still good law, pre-existed the USFPA and was controlling on the question of a state court’s authority and jurisdiction over military retirement and disability benefits that were designated by Congress as purposed for the specific individual. Military benefits are a “personal entitlement” and through federal legislation Congress “intended that military retired pay ‘actually reach the beneficiary.’”.

In conclusion, the Court noted that the state court’s order rested entirely on the purported need to restore the former spouse’s lost portion as a result of the waiver. Such an order was void and unauthorized because it was prohibited by federal case law and federal statutes, particularly 38 U.S.C. § 5301 and 10 U.S.C. § 1408. The Court again emphasized that a former spouse has no vested interest to receive indemnity, offset, compensation or reimbursement from funds of the veteran.

Concurring in the totality of the opinion, Justice Thomas noted that there was no need to even discuss the purpose and intent of Congress because states were simply pre-empted by federal law from diverting the veteran’s funds.

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 pre-emption. 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. Importantly, the Court relies on 38 U.S.C. § 5301 in several parts of its opinion concerning this pre-emption and lack of authority and jurisdiction of the trial court over these funds.

Therefore, this pre-emption 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, and the long line of Supreme Court decisions holding same. That authority further springs, as we demonstrated in our amicus curiae brief from the enumerated Military Powers of the Congress entrenched in the Constitution and buttressed by the unwavering operation of the Supremacy Clause, making all federal laws enacted by Congress pursuant to its enumerated powers the Supreme Law of the Land which no state legislature, judge or administrative agency can contravene.

What must not be forgotten is despite this long fought and unanimous victory, and the decision’s unequivocal reversal 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 consequences of leaving our most vulnerable veterans who are physically and psychologically unable to continue working and living a normal life with little or no funds to survive on. It is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom the hardships this preexisting, and indeed, as confirmed by the Court’s opinion, illegitimate state of affairs brought upon our veterans during a most trying three decades of high-tempo military operations.

Carson J. Tucker operates an international legal consulting practice in Europe and the United States. Part of his practice involves writing specialized legal briefs for non-profit organizations, governmental entities, international non-governmental organizations, and collaborative groups with interests in the outcome of cases addressing issues of global and national importance.

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