I would like to begin this blog post by thanking all those who are currently serving in the United States military and to all Veterans that have served. Currently, there are approximately 22 million veterans of the U.S. armed forces and 1.5 million currently serving. On September 15, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling potentially affecting their military families. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in May, 2017, in the case of Howell v. Howell (No.15-1037) that a state court may not order a veteran to indemnify a divorced spouse for the loss in the divorced spouse’s portion of the veteran’s retirement pay caused by the veteran’s waiver of retirement pay to receive service-related disability benefits.
The facts surrounding case involved an Arizona court awarding Sandra Howell half of Air Force veteran John Howell’s retirement pay when the couple was divorced in 1991. Mr. Howell later became eligible for disability benefits in 2005 and elected to waive $250 of his $1,500 a month in retirement pay, which is taxable, in favor of $250 monthly disability pay, which is not taxable. The election reduced his ex-wife’s monthly divorce settlement by $125 and she went back to court requesting her half of what his pay would have been had he not chosen the election. She won and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed that decision. Mr. Howell appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court which reversed the state Supreme Court’s decision.
The Supreme Court further affirmed and clarified the prior decision that retirement pay that is received from the military as disability payments that commenced solely because of a service member’s disability is not payable to a former spouse. Mansell v. Mansell, 490, U.S. 581, 584 (1989). The Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA) precludes a state court, within the context of a divorce proceeding, from dividing military disability retirement pay pursuant to state property laws because the USFSPA authorizes that only disposable retired or retainer pay be counted as marital property for equitable distribution. 10 U.S.C. § 1408(a) (4) and (7).