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SCOTUS rules in military divorce retirement-pay matter

We spotlighted a military divorce case in our blog a few months back, informing our readers across Arkansas with interest in the matter that we would timely update the story at a relevant juncture as it worked its way through the courts.

Given that nothing is more relevant in the judicial realm than a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on appeal, we now turn to that update, in the wake of a SCOTUS decision recently that materially affected the above-cited case.

As noted in our March 21 blog entry, that case focused squarely upon the division of retirement pay in a military divorce.

The case that SCOTUS took on appeal featured the following key facts.

A military couple divorced, agreeing to a 50/50 split of the servicemember's retirement pay. Some years following that agreement, the former military member qualified for a certain amount of disability pay, requiring him to forgo an equal amount of his retirement pay in order to avoid so-called "double dipping." As a consequence, his ex-spouse suffered from a diminished pay check each month, given that the ex-servicemember's reduced retirement allotment proportionately reduced her pay.

She sued in state court, arguing that the equal split agreed to during divorce could not be compromised through later actions. She prevailed in that argument at all judicial levels in her state.

Her court wins stopped with SCOTUS, though, with the nation's highest court ruling that an existing federal statute -- the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act -- preempts the ability of any state court to order relief to a divorced military spouse to make up for a reduction in retirement benefits.

The veteran had a right to apply for disability payments, the court stated, with a prerequisite for doing so being a waiver of a stated amount in his retirement pay. Nothing in the federal law required him -- or would it require any other similarly situated individual -- to suffer detriment (an increased allotment from his reduced retirement pay) to take advantage of a military benefit conferred by law.

The court ruled without dissent in the matter, with Justice Stephen Breyer noting that, "The question is complicated, but the answer is not."

In a nutshell, no state can demand an increased amount subtracted from a veteran's retirement pay to indemnify a divorced partner for a loss suffered owing to the veteran's lawful waiver of pay in order to quality for disability benefits.

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