Kansas Holds State Courts Lack Jurisdiction to Override Federal Law Concerning Veterans’ Disability Benefits

Following state courts across the country that have begun implementing the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Howell v. Howell, the Court of Appeals of Kansas has held that state courts do not have jurisdiction to divert veterans’ disability pay to former spouses, even where the parties had previously agreed to divide such benefits in a divorce judgment by consent.

The Court held that the United States Congress has directly and specifically legislated in the area of veterans’ disability benefits through its enumerated powers. As such, the state courts were preempted by the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, article VI, cl. 2, from diverting such benefits, or vesting them in someone other than the beneficiary. See In re Babin, 2019 Kan. App. LEXIS 6 (February 1, 2019).

The Court of Appeals noted that Howell had overruled state cases that had previously relied on the sanctity of contract to escape the reach of federal preemption. See Slip Opinion at p. 16. “The district court lacked jurisdiction to order such a division of benefits, especially over [the servicemember’s] objection to the division of property.” Id.

This is yet another case that confirms the breadth and reach of the Supreme Court’s decision in Howell. The Law Offices of Carson J. Tucker filed the amicus curiae brief on behalf of Veterans of Foreign Wars and Operation Firing for Effect in the United States Supreme Court in the Howell case. This decision confirms the arguments and principles put forth in that brief, and confirmed by the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision that federal law absolutely preempts state law in this area and state courts simply have no jurisdiction or authority to order otherwise, even where the parties have previously agreed to divide the disability pay. All such orders are preempted.

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