481 U.S. 619 (1987), 85-1206, Rose v. Rose

Docket Nº:No. 85-1206
Citation:481 U.S. 619, 107 S.Ct. 2029, 95 L.Ed.2d 599, 55 U.S.L.W. 4630
Party Name:Rose v. Rose
Case Date:May 18, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 619

481 U.S. 619 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 2029, 95 L.Ed.2d 599, 55 U.S.L.W. 4630




No. 85-1206

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 1987

Argued March 4, 1987



Appellant, a totally disabled veteran whose main source of income is federal veterans' benefits, was held in contempt by the state trial court for failure to pay child support, the amount of which had been fixed by the court after considering appellant's benefits to be income under a Tennessee statute. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that the Veterans' Administration (VA) has exclusive jurisdiction to specify payments of child support from the disability benefits it provides. The court determined that Congress intended disability benefits to support the beneficiary and his dependents, and held that the trial court's order directing appellant to pay a portion of those benefits as child support or be held in contempt did not undermine a substantial federal interest.

Held: A state court has jurisdiction to hold a disabled veteran in contempt for failing to pay child support, even if the veteran's only means of satisfying this obligation is to utilize veterans' benefits received as compensation for a service-connected disability. The Tennessee statute, as construed by the state courts to authorize an award of disability benefits as child support, is not preempted under the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, since it does not conflict with federal law. Pp. 625-636.

(a) Title 38 U.S.C. § 3107(a)(2), which gives the VA discretionary authority to apportion disability compensation on behalf of a veteran's children, is not an exclusive grant of authority to the VA to order that child support be paid from disability benefits, and does not indicate that exercise of the VA's discretion could yield independent child support determinations in conflict with existing state court orders. Moreover, the implementing regulations, which simply authorize apportionment if "the veteran is not reasonably discharging his or her [child support] responsibility . . . ," contain few guidelines for apportionment, and no specific procedures for bringing claims. Furthermore, to construe § 3107(a)(2) as preemptive could open for reconsideration a vast number of existing divorce decrees affecting disabled veterans, and lead in future cases to piecemeal litigation before the state courts and the VA. Given the traditional authority of state courts over child support, their unparalleled familiarity with local economic factors affecting the issue, and their experience in applying state statutes that contain detailed support guidelines and procedures, it seems certain that Congress would have been

Page 620

more explicit had it meant the VA's apportionment power to displace state court authority. Pp. 626-628.

(b) Title 38 U.S.C. § 211(a), which provides that VA decisions on benefits for veterans and their dependents are final, conclusive, and not subject to review by [107 S.Ct. 2031] any other federal official or federal court, does not vest exclusive jurisdiction in the VA, nor preempt state court jurisdiction to enforce a veteran's child support obligation. Section 211(a) makes no reference to state court jurisdiction. Moreover, its purpose of achieving uniformity in the administration of veterans' benefits is not threatened by state child support contempt proceedings, which do not review the disability eligibility decisions that are the primary focus of the section. Furthermore, since the VA is not a party in a contempt proceeding, it is not subjected to an additional litigation burden, the prevention of which is also a purpose of § 211(a). Pp. 628-630.

(c) State court jurisdiction is not preempted by 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a), which provides that veterans' benefits payments made to, or on account of, a beneficiary, shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure. Neither of § 3101(a)'s purposes -- to avoid the VA's being placed in the position of a collection agency and to prevent the deprivation and depletion of veterans' means of subsistence -- is constrained by allowing the state courts to hold appellant in contempt. The VA is not obliged to participate in the state proceedings or pay benefits directly to appellee. Moreover, the legislative history establishes that disability benefits are intended to provide compensation for disabled veterans and their families. Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655, Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, and Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. 46, distinguished. Pp. 630-634.

(d) Provisions of the Child Support Enforcement Act, which provide that moneys payable by the Government to any individual are subject to child support enforcement proceedings (42 U.S.C. § 659(a)), but which specifically exclude VA disability benefits, do not establish a congressional intent to exempt such benefits from legal process. Section 659(a) was intended to create a limited waiver of sovereign immunity so that state courts could issue valid orders directed against Government agencies attaching funds in their possession. Thus, although veterans' disability benefits may be exempt from attachment while in the VA's hands, once they are delivered to the veteran, a state court can require that they be used to satisfy a child support order. Pp. 634-635.


MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II-A, II-B, II-D, and III of which STEVENS and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed dn opinion concurring in part and concurring in the

Page 621

judgment, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 636. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 640. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 644.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we are asked to decide whether a state court has jurisdiction to hold a disabled veteran in contempt for failing to pay child support, where the veteran's only means

Page 622

of satisfying this obligation is to utilize benefits received from the Veterans' Administration under 38 U.S.C. § 314 as compensation for a service-connected disability.


Appellant Charlie Wayne Rose is a totally disabled veteran of the Vietnam war. He married appellee Barbara Ann McNeil Rose in 1973, and the couple had two children before their marriage ended, in October, 1983, with a divorce decree from the Circuit Court for Washington County, Tennessee. In setting appellant's financial responsibility for child support, the Circuit Court considered, along with other factors identified by a Tennessee statute, the "earning capacity, obligations and needs, and financial resources of each parent." Tenn.Code Ann. § 36-5-101(e)(3) (1984) (formerly Tenn.Code Ann. § 36-820 (1977)). Appellant's income was then, and is now, composed entirely of benefits received from the Veterans' and Social Security Administrations. Appellant received monthly:1 $1,211 in veterans' disability benefits; $1,806 in veterans' aid and attendance benefits; $90 in veterans' dependents' benefits; and $281 in Social Security disability benefits. The children received an additional $94 a month in Social Security children's insurance benefits.

The Circuit Court ordered appellant to pay $800 per month as child support, and he did not appeal. From the record, it appears that he initially paid appellee $706 monthly, contending that the remaining $94 was satisfied by the children's insurance benefits appellee had received directly from the Social Security Administration. However, on appellee's first petition for contempt, the Circuit Court clarified its order in March, 1984, to require appellant to pay $800 per month in addition to the Social Security insurance benefits. Record 19.

Page 623

The following month, appellant paid for the support of his children only the $90 in dependents' benefits he had received from the Veterans' Administration. Appellee filed a second petition for contempt, seeking the remaining $710. Appellant responded with the assertion that only the Veterans' Administration or Social Security Administration could order him to contribute additional sums for child support. Invoking the Supremacy Clause, U.S.Const., Art. VI, cl. 2, he sought a ruling from the Circuit Court that it lacked jurisdiction over the disability benefits he received from these federal agencies, and that § 36-820, pursuant to which the court had considered these benefits in setting the amount of child support, was null and void. Record 28-29.

The Circuit Court, after a hearing, found appellant in willful contempt for failing to pay child support. The court acknowledged that appellant could challenge the constitutionality of § 36-820, and could make the State of Tennessee a party to the action for such purposes, but it held that, in the meantime, he would have to comply with the order of child support. The court then ordered appellant incarcerated until he satisfied this obligation. App. to Juris. Statement 11a. Ten days later, appellant was released pursuant to an agreement between the parties that he would pay appellee moneys past due and, pending disposition of appeals, would each month pay $400 to appellee and deposit $400 into the registry of the Circuit Court. Record 39-40.

After becoming a party to this action, the State of Tennessee moved for summary judgment, arguing that § 36-820 was constitutional, and thus the Circuit Court had properly asserted jurisdiction over appellant's disability benefits in setting and enforcing his child support obligation. The court agreed. In a two-page order, it upheld the statute and concluded that it had validly exercised "jurisdiction to order support payments to be made from Federal Disability Income Benefits." App. to...

To continue reading