Since opening my law firm’s doors in 2006, I have strived to make Riley Law Firm a respected member of the Birmingham legal and business community. As a solo practice attorney who focuses on personal attention, being successful at being a good neighbor is just as important as being successful at my career.
A large part of my firm’s success has always been attributed to clear communications. I am proud to announce that I am now starting a blog on this website. My intent is to highlight stories of local and national legal interests, primarily within our legal focus of Alabama divorce and criminal defense. I hope you will find the stories interesting and I encourage you to share your thoughts with me.
So, without further ado, here I go… Supreme Court to decide on military benefits in divorce
My first story is of national interest and relates to a case before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). In late March this year, the Justices heard arguments relating to how military benefits should be treated in marital property settlements for divorce.
Per The Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act is a 1982, federal law gives states the right to treat military pay and benefits as marital property, subject to equitable distribution between the spouses. The argument before SCOTUS, however, relates to how military retirement benefits are valued for distribution when retirees elect to trade in their monthly retirement checks for disability benefits, which is a fairly common practice. In the case of Howell v. Howell, Sandra Howell is arguing that her ex-husband’s decision to opt for disability benefits leaves her without a monthly check. In addition, she argues, he is coming out ahead because the disability benefits are not taxed.
A condensed version of the argument
The crux of the argument is the ambiguous language of the law, which says the states may treat the retiree’s “disposable retired pay” as marital property after subtracting any portion waived in return for disability benefits. In this case, Mr. Howell waived all of his retirement pay in return for disability benefits. His lawyers argue, of course, that the letter of the law reads that since no disposable retired pay now remains, there is nothing left to treat as marital property; and therefore nothing remains to be divided with his ex-spouse.
Mrs. Howell’s divorce attorneys, of course, argue that her husband’s decision effectively means that Mr. Howell ends up with the total military benefit, so it wasn’t subject to equitable distribution, after all.
How would you decide?
Like all cases brought before the Supreme Court, there are many nuanced legal arguments the judges have to take into consideration. In the meantime – just looking at the main argument of trading in disposable retired pay for disability benefits – how would you decide? Did Mr. Howell deliberately waive the paycheck in order to claim the full retirement benefit for himself? Or was waiving the paycheck in favor of disability benefits a legitimate means of getting the full benefits he needed for his disability?
When the Justices make their decision, I’ll use this blog page to let you know how they ruled.