Are there special issues to consider in a military divorce?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a federal law called the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act preempts any applicable state law approach to the contrary regarding property division rights. The state law would classify a waived portion of retirement pay as community property, eligible for division in a divorce. However, the USFSPA law expressly prohibits that approach.

The case involved a couple that had divorced one year before the husband retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force. The divorce agreement prospectively granted each spouse half of the anticipated military retirement pay. Several years into retirement, the husband sought treatment for a degenerative joint disease in his shoulder. He concurrently filed a claim for disability benefits, which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approved.

Federal law does not allow simultaneous payments of full retirement and disability benefits. Accordingly, the husband elected to waive an amount equal to the disability payments from his monthly military retirement pay. However, that reduction also affected the former wife’s monthly share of retirement benefits.

The former wife filed a motion in court, seeking enforcement of the amount called for in the divorce decree. The family court granted her motion, affirming her right to 50 percent of her former husband’s retirement pay. However, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, citing the preemption of federal law.

Although military divorces are similar to their civilian counterparts, federal law also creates some differences. The United States Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that underscores this point. Our family law firm has the experience to help military couples navigate both state and federal law with ease during their divorce.

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