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Supreme Court rules on military divorce case

A previous blog post discussed a case that came before the Supreme Court of the United States, Howell v. Howell. The Court has now released its final ruling in this case regarding the proper distribution of benefits following a retired service member's divorce.

In this case, the retired service member agreed that his ex-wife would receive half of his retirement pay when it began the year following their divorce. When he subsequently opted to waive part of his retirement pay in favor of untaxed disability benefits, his ex-wife brought suit, claiming that she should receive half of what his retirement pay would have been if he had not chosen partial disability benefits. The Arizona Supreme Court granted her petition to be reimbursed for the discrepancy between amounts.

However, SCOTUS reversed the lower court's decision, ruling that the husband is not required to reimburse his ex-wife for the $125 a month difference as a result of his choice to opt for partial disability benefits in lieu of retirement benefits.

The Court analyzed the federal law governing this case - the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act - asserting that state courts lack authority under federal law to divide up disability benefits. That rationale extends to this case regardless of the negative financial impact on the ex-wife. The justices opined that this restriction cannot be circumvented by simply characterizing the award as a reimbursement.

This precedent may impose hardships on former military spouses in situations like this one. However, Justice Breyer suggested that attempts should be made to address the possibility that retired military personnel may at some point waive a portion of their retirement benefits in favor of disability benefits. This possibility may not only be accounted for by state courts which can recalculate spousal support based on future changes in circumstance but also by parties to a military divorce when coming to a settlement.

Source:, "Opinion analysis: Unanimous court rules for veteran in family law case", Amy Howe, May 15, 2017

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