By Elizabeth J. Billies | Esquire

Can your military benefits be divided in divorce? The United States Supreme Court has said, "no."

The United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision in Howell v. Howell finding that a portion military pension benefits that were mandatorily waived pursuant to federal law are not divisible by state courts in divorce proceedings. John Howell and SandraHowell were divorced in 1991 in Arizona while John was serving in the United States Air Force.  In resolution of their economics issues, the Court issued an order awarding Sandra fifty percent of John’s Air Force pension.  John retired from the Air Force in 1992.  Thirteen years later, the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs determined that John was disabled and was entitled to monthly disability benefits. 

Federal law requires that such disability benefits automatically reduce the veterans’ total retirement pension benefit and, in effect, result in a waiver of a portion of the final pension benefit equal to the disability payment.  Sometime thereafter, John began collecting his pension.  However, his monthly payment was reduced by $250.00 per month to account for his receipt of disability benefits, which, in turn, reduced Sandra’s fifty percent share by $125.00. 

As a result, Sandra filed an action with the Arizona trial court and requested that John be order to pay to her 50% share of the pension as calculated on the original amount and not the reduced amount.   Both the trial court and the Arizona Supreme Court agreed with Sandra, holding that the federal law requiring that pension payments be automatically reduced when a veteran receives disability payments cannot preempt a family court order regarding division of that pension. 

The US Supreme Court disagreed with this finding and held that a state court does not have the authority to divide the waived portion of a military pension when that portion was  mandatorily waived pursuant to federal law.  John did not chose to reduce his share of his pension.  Rather, it was automatically reduced when he began receiving disability benefits. The Court did opine that a family court can certainly take the possibility of such a reduction into consideration when crafting an equitable distribution or support award.    The Court also pointed out that it did not matter that the finding of disability occurred after the Order was entered as a right to a pension benefit is based on a future contingency and does not have a final value until the benefit begins being paid. Click here to read the full opinion.