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Supreme Court

Keeping Your Case Information Confidential

Keeping Your Case Information Confidential

By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

Beginning January 6, 2018, a new Pennsylvania Supreme Court rule will impact who can access information regarding your legal matter. The rule, which applies to all trial court or appellate cases filed in Pennsylvania, formally recognizes the idea that public records, including court documents, are, well, indeed public. 

In recognition of this fact, the new policy governs how records will be accessible to the public, how requests for access to records will be handled, and how litigants must file documents that are sensitive or contain confidential information. 

Attorneys and their clients must now take care to protect confidential information, such as dates of birth, financial information and social security numbers, from public access and certify that they have done so in accordance with the new policy. To remain private, this information should be kept out of filed pleadings and, instead, listed only in Confidential Information sheets, which do not become part of the public record. While all counties will utilize the Confidential Information sheet format, litigants in Montgomery County may have an extra layer of protection. Montgomery County is currently working on establishing a local rule that would require the filing of redacted and unredacted versions of pleadings, such that only judges and the parties (as well as their attorneys) can view unredacted documents. 


Are Military Pension Payments Divisible in Divorce? SCOTUS says, "No."

Are Military Pension Payments Divisible in Divorce? SCOTUS says, "No."

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.