The Howell v Howell case revolves around the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act, which allows states to treat veterans' retirement pay as marital property divisible during a divorce but which does not all the division of veteran's disability benefits. In 1991, John Howell and Sandra Howell divorced, with Sandra being awarded 50% of John's future Air Force retirement pay. However, John later became partially disabled and waived a portion of his retirement pay to receive disability benefits. (This case predated the law change allowing veterans with 50 percent or more service-related disabilities to receive both full military retirement and the veteran's disability payment.)
The Supreme Court's ruling in Howell v Howell has far-reaching implications for state courts and military divorces. Prior to this decision, state courts had the power to order veterans to indemnify their former spouses for the loss in their portion of retirement pay if after a divorce, their military retired pay was reduced to receive veterans disability benefits. This meant that veterans were forced to reimburse their ex-spouses for their share of retirement pay lost due to disability benefits. However, the Supreme Court's decision clearly establishes that state courts lack the authority to require a veteran to indemnify the ex-spouse for any benefits lost from waiving retirement and receiving veterans' disability payments. Virginia and many other states had routinely done so until the Howell case. Now, the Howell v. Howell case generally prohibits a court from ordering reimbursement or indemnification for the lost portion of retirement pay. (There are complexities, such as the retroactive impact of the case and whether the parties may agree to override the Howell case, among others.)
While state courts can no longer require reimbursement for the waived portion of retirement pay, they can still consider the contingency of waived retirement pay or reductions in value when determining the division of assets or the need for spousal support. This allows state courts to take into account the potential impact of disability benefits on the overall financial situation of the divorcing couple.
In the Howell v Howell case, Sandra argued for upholding the initial divorce decree and requiring John to ensure she receives her full share of retirement pay. On the other hand, John asserted that federal law preempts state courts from awarding waived retirement pay to a divorced spouse. The Supreme Court's decision supported John's argument, limiting the power of state courts in this context. This ruling clarifies the division of retirement pay in military divorces and establishes a precedent that restricts state courts' authority in this matter.
The ruling in Howell v Howell has significant implications for military service members and their spouses. It protects veterans' ability to receive disability benefits without facing reimbursement to former spouses.The Court's decision clarifies that waived retirement pay, regardless of when the waiver was made, is exempt from division in a divorce decree. This provides a level of certainty for veterans who have waived a portion of their retirement pay in order to receive disability benefits.
In conclusion, the Howell v Howell SCOTUS case establishes a precedent that restricts state courts' authority in military divorces, particularly regarding the division of waived retirement pay for disability benefits. The ruling has significant implications for military service members, protecting their right to receive disability benefits without the obligation of reimbursing former spouses. While it provides clarity on the exemption of waived retirement pay from division, it also raises questions about the application of this ruling to previously resolved cases. As military divorces continue to be a complex and sensitive issue, it is important for individuals involved to seek legal guidance and stay informed about the evolving legal landscape in this area.
NOTE: (This case predated the change in law allowing veterans who have law change allowing veterans with 50 percent or more service-related disabilities to receive both full military retirement and the veteran's disability payment.)