Supreme Court Rules for Veteran in Family Law Pension Dispute

The U.S. Supreme Court came down unanimously on May 15, 2017 in favor of a U.S. veteran. His ex-wife claimed that he owed her reimbursement for his waived retirement pay that the court awarded to her in the divorce. Justice Breyer authored the opinion in favor of U.S. Air Force veteran John Howell. The justices ruled that Howell doesn’t have to reimburse his ex-wife for waived pension pay despite the divorce judgment calling for the same.

John and Sandra Howell divorced more than twenty-five years ago. The judgment called for John to pay half of his retirement pay to Sandra. Since that time, John elected to waive portions of the retirement pay. For the waiver, he received disability pay instead. While a veteran pays taxes on retirement pay, they don’t pay taxes on disability pay. Because of the waiver, John’s disability pay was $250 per month less than his pension pay would have been.

Even though the divorce judgment calls for John to reimburse Sandra for the difference of $125 per month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the provision of the divorce judgment is unenforceable. John doesn’t have to reimburse Sandra anything even though the waiver is his choice. Sandra is simply out the money.

The lower state courts ruled in succession in the former wife’s favor. They focused on making the ex-wife whole for what she lost because of the ex-husband’s disability election. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state rulings citing the federal Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA). They said that the USFSPA allows a court to split disposable retired pay except any portion waived for disability benefits. They cited the prior case Mansell v. Mansell which concluded that the state courts can’t divide veteran disability benefits.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states just don’t have the authority to divide disability benefits even if the result is that an ex-spouse doesn’t get what they expected. They also ruled that requiring reimbursement of the amount from one spouse to another isn’t a lawful substitute, either. Even though the court admits that the ruling might create a difficulty for former military spouses, they say that state courts always have the option to adjust spousal support.


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