Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 77-533

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation59 L.Ed.2d 1,99 S.Ct. 802,439 U.S. 572
Docket NumberNo. 77-533,77-533
PartiesJess H. HISQUIERDO, Petitioner, v. Angela HISQUIERDO
Decision Date22 January 1979

439 U.S. 572
99 S.Ct. 802
59 L.Ed.2d 1
Jess H. HISQUIERDO, Petitioner,



No. 77-533.
Argued Nov. 1, 1978.
Decided Jan. 22, 1979.

The Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 (Act) provides retirement benefits for railroad employees. The benefits are not contractual and can be altered by Congress at any time. Benefits for an employee's spouse terminate upon an absolute divorce. 45 U.S.C. § 231d(c)(3). Except for satisfying child-support or alimony obligations, "no annuity [under the Act] shall be assignable or be subject to any tax or to garnishment, attachment, or other legal process under any circumstances whatsoever, nor shall the payment thereof be anticipated . . . ." 45 U.S.C. § 231m. Petitioner, a California resident whose years of service as a railroad employee entitled him to benefits under the Act if and when he attained age 60, petitioned for dissolution of his marriage to respondent, also a resident of California, which has a community property law. The trial court divided the parties' community property but held that respondent had no interest in petitioner's expectation of receiving railroad retirement benefits. The Supreme Court of California ultimately reversed, holding that because the benefits would flow in part from petitioner's employment during marriage, they were community property. The court rejected petitioner's contention that § 231m barred respondent's claim, reasoning that the provision was intended to apply to creditors only. Held: Benefits payable under the Act may not be divided under the community property law. Pp. 581-590.

(a) Ordering petitioner to pay respondent an appropriate portion of his benefits under the Act, or its monetary equivalent, as petitioner receives it, would contravene § 231m and would deprive petitioner of a portion of the benefit Congress, in § 231d(c)(3), indicated was designed for the railroad employee alone. Under the Supremacy Clause, California must defer to the Act's statutory scheme for allocating benefits insofar as the terms of federal law require. Pp. 583-587.

(b) An offsetting award for the expected value of respondent's interest in petitioner's statutory benefits would likewise defeat the purpose of barring the anticipation of payments under § 231m of the Act. Pp. 588-590.

19 Cal.3d 613, 139 Cal.Rptr. 590, 566 P.2d 224, reversed and remanded.

Page 573

James D. Endman, Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioner.

Elinor H. Stillman, Washington, D. C., for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Howard M. Fields, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Herma Hill Kay, Berkeley, Cal., for NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Jess H. Hisquierdo in 1975 sued to dissolve his marriage with respondent Angela Hisquierdo. The Supreme Court of California, in applying the State's community property rules, awarded respondent an interest in petitioner's expectation of ultimately receiving benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act of 1974, 88 Stat. 1305, 45 U.S.C. § 231 et seq. The issue here is whether the Act prohibits this allocation and division of benefits.


The Railroad Retirement Act, first passed in 1934, 48 Stat. 1283, provides a system of retirement and disability benefits for persons who pursue careers in the railroad industry. Its sponsors felt that the Act would encourage older workers to retire by providing them with the means "to enjoy the closing days of their lives with peace of mind and physical comfort," and so would "assure more rapid advancement in the service"

Page 574

and also more jobs for younger workers.1 Both employees and carriers pay a federal tax 2 which funds a Railroad Retirement Account. The Railroad Retirement Board, provided for by the Act, 45 U.S.C. § 231f, disburses benefits from the account to each eligible "individual," 45 U.S.C. § 231a.

In its modern form,3 the Act resembles both a private pension program and a social welfare plan. It provides two tiers of benefits. The upper tier, like a private pension, is tied to earnings and career service. An employee, to be eligible for benefits, must work in the industry 10 years. Absent disability, no benefit is paid, however, until the employee either reaches age 62 or is at least 60 years old and has completed 30 years of service. 45 U.S.C. § 231a(a)(1). Like a social welfare or insurance scheme, the taxes paid by

Page 575

and on behalf of an employee do not necessarily correlate with the benefits to which the employee may be entitled. Since 1950, the Railroad Retirement Account has received substantial transfers from the social security system, and legislative changes made in 1974 were expected to require a one-time infusion of $7 billion in general tax revenues.4

The lower, and larger, tier of benefits corresponds exactly to those an employee would expect to receive were he covered by the Social Security Act. 45 U.S.C. § 231b(a)(1). The Act provides special benefits for the children or parent of a worker who dies. §§ 231a(d)(1)(iii) and (iv). It also makes detailed provision for a worker's spouse; the spouse qualifies for an individual benefit if the spouse lives with the employee, and receives regular contributions from the employee for support, or is entitled to support from the employee pursuant to a court order. § 231a(c)(3)(i). The benefits terminate, however, when the spouse and the employee are absolutely divorced. § 231d(c)(3).5

Like Social Security, and unlike most private pension plans, railroad retirement benefits are not contractual. Congress may alter, and even eliminate, them at any time.6 This vulnerability to congressional edict contrasts strongly with the protection Congress has afforded recipients from creditors,

Page 576

taxgatherers, and all those who would "anticipate" the receipt of benefits:

"Notwithstanding any other law of the United States, or of any State, territory, or the District of Columbia, no annuity or supplemental annuity shall be assignable or be subject to any tax or to garnishment, attachment, or other legal process under any circumstances whatsoever, nor shall the payment thereof be anticipated . . . ." 45 U.S.C. § 231m.7

In 1975, Congress made an exception to § 231m and similar provisions in all other federal benefit plans. Concerned about recipients who were evading support obligations and thereby throwing children and divorced spouses on the public dole, Congress amended the Social Security Act by adding a new provision, § 459, to the effect that, notwithstanding any contrary law, federal benefits may be reached to satisfy a legal obligation for child support or alimony. 88 Stat. 2357, 42 U.S.C. § 659.8 In 1977, shortly before the issuance of the Supreme Court of California's opinion in this case, Congress added to the Social Security Act a definitional statute, § 462(c), which relates to § 459 and limits "alimony" to its tra-

Page 577

ditional common-law meaning of spousal support. That statute states specifically that "alimony"

"does not include any payment or transfer of property or its value by an individual to his spouse or former spouse in compliance with any community property settlement, equitable distribution of property, or other division of property between spouses or former spouses." Pub.L. 95-30, Tit. V, § 501(d), 91 Stat. 160.9


Petitioner and respondent, who are California residents, were married in Nevada in 1958. They separated in 1972. In 1975 petitioner instituted this proceeding in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, for dissolution of the marriage. California, like seven other States, by statute has a form of community property law brought to our shores by the Spanish. In California the

"statute proceeds upon the theory that the marriage, in respect to property acquired during its existence, is a community of which each spouse is a member, equally contributing by his or her industry to its prosperity, and possessing an equal right to succeed to the property after

Page 578

dissolution, in case of surviving the other." Meyer v. Kinzer, 12 Cal. 247, 251 (1859).10

Community property includes the property earned by either spouse during the union, as well as that given to both during the marriage. See Cal.Civ.Code Ann. § 687 (West 1954). It contrasts with separate property, which includes assets owned by a spouse before marriage or acquired separately by a spouse during marriage through gift. In community property States, ownership turns on the method and timing of acquisition, while the traditional view in common-law States is that ownership depends on title.11 On the theory that petitioner acquired an expectation of receiving Railroad Retirement Act benefits due in part to his labors while married, respondent (but not petitioner) in the California divorce proceeding listed that expectation as an item of community property subject to division upon dissolution of the marriage. App. 2, 3.

At the time, petitioner, a railroad machinist, was aged 55. He had worked from 1942 to 1975 for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, and subsequently entered the employ of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. Both jobs fell within the Act. Because petitioner had 30 years' service, the statute would permit him to receive benefits if and when he attained age 60. Respondent calculated that she was entitled to half the benefits attributable to his labor during the 14 years of their marriage, or, by her estimates, 19.6% of the total benefits to be received.12 The couple has no children.

Page 579

Respondent in 1975 was 53. She had worked for the preceding eight years in a factory. She had been gainfully employed for 35 years and had an expectation that upon her retirement she would be entitled to benefits under the Social Security Act. Neither petitioner...

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