In re Braunstein

Decision Date13 February 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2019-0065,2019-0065
Citation173 N.H. 38,236 A.3d 870
Parties In the MATTER OF Sean BRAUNSTEIN and Jericka Braunstein
CourtNew Hampshire Supreme Court

Sean Braunstein, self-represented party.

Granite State Legal Resources, of Concord (Anthony Santoro on the brief), for the respondent.

HICKS, J.

The petitioner, Sean Braunstein (Husband), appeals the final decree and associated orders entered by the Circuit Court (Sadler, J.) in his divorce from the respondent, Jericka Braunstein (Wife). He argues, among other things, that the trial court erred by including his monthly federal veterans' disability benefits as income for child support purposes. We affirm.

We briefly recite the facts necessary to decide this appeal. Husband is unemployed and describes himself as medically retired and disabled. He receives veterans' disability income, social security disability income, and other federal benefits. According to Husband's financial affidavit, he receives approximately $5,000 monthly from those sources. Before the trial court, Husband asserted that his federal veterans' disability benefits did not qualify for inclusion as income for child support purposes pursuant to federal law, which, in turn, preempts state law. The trial court rejected Husband's assertion, determining that "under the statutory definition of income[,] all amounts should be included." (Footnote omitted.) See RSA 458-C:2, IV (2018) (defining gross income for the purposes of calculating child support as including veterans' and disability benefits). This appeal followed.

On appeal, Husband reiterates the federal preemption arguments he made in the trial court. Preemption is essentially a matter of statutory interpretation. Hendrick v. N.H. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 169 N.H. 252, 259, 145 A.3d 1055 (2016). We review the trial court's statutory interpretation de novo. Id. We interpret federal law in accordance with federal policy and precedent. Id. When interpreting a statute, we begin with the language of the statute itself, and, if possible, construe that language according to its plain and ordinary meaning. Id. When the language of the statute is clear on its face, its meaning is not subject to modification. Id. We will neither consider what Congress might have said, nor add words that it did not see fit to include. Id. We interpret statutes in the context of the overall statutory scheme and not in isolation. Id.

The federal preemption doctrine is based upon the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, U.S. CONST. art. VI, cl. 2. Id. at 260, 145 A.3d 1055. Article VI provides that federal law "shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." U.S. CONST. art. VI, cl. 2. "There can be no dispute that the Supremacy Clause invalidates all state laws that conflict or interfere with an Act of Congress." Rose v. Arkansas State Police, 479 U.S. 1, 3, 107 S.Ct. 334, 93 L.Ed.2d 183 (1986) (per curiam).

"Pre-emption may be either express or implied ...." FMC Corp. v. Holliday, 498 U.S. 52, 56, 111 S.Ct. 403, 112 L.Ed.2d 356 (1990) (quotation omitted). "Even without an express provision for preemption, ... state law must yield to a congressional Act in at least two circumstances." Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363, 372, 120 S.Ct. 2288, 147 L.Ed.2d 352 (2000). "When Congress intends federal law to occupy the field, state law in that area is preempted." Id. (quotation omitted). "And even if Congress has not occupied the field, state law is naturally preempted to the extent of any conflict with a federal statute." Id. An actual conflict exists when "it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements or where state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress." English v. General Electric Co., 496 U.S. 72, 79, 110 S.Ct. 2270, 110 L.Ed.2d 65 (1990) (quotation and citation omitted); see Wenners v. Great State Beverages, 140 N.H. 100, 104, 663 A.2d 623 (1995). "What is a sufficient obstacle is a matter of judgment, to be informed by examining the federal statute as a whole and identifying its purpose and intended effects ...." Crosby, 530 U.S. at 373, 120 S.Ct. 2288.

Traditionally, "the regulation of domestic relations is ... the domain of state law," and, therefore, there is "a presumption against preemption of state laws governing domestic relations." Hillman v. Maretta, 569 U.S. 483, 490, 133 S.Ct. 1943, 186 L.Ed.2d 43 (2013) (quotation omitted). "[F]amily and family-property law must do major damage to clear and substantial federal interests before the Supremacy Clause will demand that state law be overridden." Id. at 490-91, 133 S.Ct. 1943 (quotations omitted). "But family law is not entirely insulated from conflict pre-emption principles," and, thus, the United States Supreme Court has "recognized that state laws governing the economic aspects of domestic relations must give way to clearly conflicting federal enactments." Id. at 491, 133 S.Ct. 1943 (quotation and ellipsis omitted).

Applying these principles, the United States Supreme Court in Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619, 107 S.Ct. 2029, 95 L.Ed.2d 599 (1987), "addressed expressly whether veterans' disability benefits could be considered by state courts as ‘income’ for purposes of calculating [child] support." Alwan v. Alwan, 70 Va.App. 599, 830 S.E.2d 45, 49 (2019). The issue in Rose was whether a state court had jurisdiction "to hold a disabled veteran in contempt for failing to pay child support" when federal veterans' disability benefits were his "only means of satisfying [that] obligation." Rose, 481 U.S. at 621-22, 107 S.Ct. 2029 ; see In the Matter of Brownell & Brownell, 163 N.H. 593, 598, 44 A.3d 534 (2012). The veteran argued that federal law conflicted with, and, thus, preempted, state statutes purporting to grant state courts jurisdiction over veterans' disability benefits. Rose, 481 U.S. at 625, 107 S.Ct. 2029 ; see Brownell, 163 N.H. at 598, 44 A.3d 534.

The federal statutes upon which the veteran primarily relied were 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a), 42 U.S.C. § 659(a), and 42 U.S.C. § 662(f)(2). See Rose, 481 U.S. at 630-35, 107 S.Ct. 2029. At the time, 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a) provided, "[P]ayments of benefits due or to become due under any law administered by the Veterans' Administration made to, or on account of, a beneficiary shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever, either before or after receipt by the beneficiary." Rose, 481 U.S. at 630, 107 S.Ct. 2029 (quotation and ellipses omitted). Section 3101(a) "exists currently in similar form in" 38 U.S.C. § 5301(a)(1) (2012). Holmes v. Dept. of Human Resources, 279 So. 3d 572, 576 (Ala. Civ. App. 2018).

In Rose, the veteran argued that, pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a), only the Federal Veterans' Administration could order him to pay child support and that the state court lacked jurisdiction over his federal veterans' disability benefits. Rose, 481 U.S. at 623, 107 S.Ct. 2029 ; see Alwan, 830 S.E.2d at 49. In rejecting that argument, the Court explained that this statute serves two purposes: (1) "to avoid the possibility of the Veterans' Administration being placed in the position of a collection agency"; and (2) "to prevent the deprivation and depletion of the means of subsistence of veterans dependent upon these benefits as the main source of their income." Rose, 481 U.S. at 630, 107 S.Ct. 2029 (quotations and ellipsis omitted). The Court held that the state's assertion of its contempt power did not frustrate the first purpose because the Federal Veterans' Administration was neither a party to the contempt proceedings nor required to pay the veteran's disability benefits directly to his ex-wife. Holmes, 279 So. 3d at 576 ; see Rose, 481 U.S. at 630, 107 S.Ct. 2029. The second purpose was not frustrated because veterans' disability benefits "are not provided to support [the veteran] alone." Rose, 481 U.S. at 630, 107 S.Ct. 2029. Rather, the Court ruled, Congress intended those benefits "to provide reasonable and adequate compensation for disabled veterans and their families." Id. (quotation omitted); see Alwan, 830 S.E.2d at 50.

Because federal veterans' disability benefits "are intended to support not only the veteran, but the veteran's family," the Court recognized an exception in the context of child support to the statutory prohibition against attachment, levy, or seizure of a veteran's benefits. Rose, 481 U.S. at 634, 107 S.Ct. 2029 ; see Brownell, 163 N.H. at 598, 44 A.3d 534. The Court ruled, therefore, that a veteran's disability benefits are not protected from seizure when the veteran invokes Section 3101(a) "to avoid an otherwise valid order of child support." Rose, 481 U.S. at 634, 107 S.Ct. 2029 ; see Brownell, 163 N.H. at 598, 44 A.3d 534.

The veteran also relied upon 42 U.S.C. § 659(a), which, at the time, provided:

[M]oneys (the entitlement to which is based upon remuneration for employment) due from, or payable by, the United States to any individual, including members of the armed services, shall be subject, in like manner and to the same extent as if the United States were a private person, to legal process brought for the enforcement, against such individual of his legal obligations to provide child support.

Rose, 481 U.S. at 634, 107 S.Ct. 2029 (quotation and ellipses omitted). 42 U.S.C. § 662(f)(2) specifically excluded veterans' disability benefits from the statutory definition of an entitlement "based upon remuneration for employment." Rose, 481 U.S. at 634-35, 107 S.Ct. 2029 (quotation omitted). The current version of 42 U.S.C. § 659(a) is substantially the same as the version at issue in Rose. Compare Rose, 481 U.S. at 634-35, 107 S.Ct. 2029 (quoting version of the statute then in...

To continue reading

Request your trial
6 cases
  • In re Panaggio
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • March 2, 2021
    ... ... Id ... We interpret federal law in accordance with federal policy and precedent. Id ... B. Federal Preemption Principles The federal preemption doctrine is based upon the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, U.S. CONST. art. VI, cl. 2. In the Matter of Braunstein & Braunstein 173 N.H. 38, 41, 236 A.3d 870 (2020), cert. denied , U.S. , 141 S.Ct. 815, 208 L.Ed.2d 399 (2020). Article VI provides that federal law "shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to ... ...
  • State v. Papillon
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • February 13, 2020
  • In re M.E.R-L.
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals
    • December 17, 2020
    ... ... Sterling , 680 A.2d 1030, 1031 (D.C. 1996) ; Fletcher v. Fletcher , 573 So. 2d 941, 943 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991) ; In re Marriage of Wojcik , 362 Ill.App.3d 144, 297 Ill.Dec. 795, 838 N.E.2d 282, 299 (2005) ; Casey v. Casey , 79 Mass.App.Ct. 623, 948 N.E.2d 892, 902-03 (2011) ; In re Braunstein , 173 N.H. 38, 236 A.3d 870, 873-74 (2020) ; Nieves v. Iacono , 162 A.D.3d 669, 77 N.Y.S.3d 493, 494 (2018) ; Lesh v. Lesh , 257 N.C.App. 471, 809 S.E.2d 890, 896 (2018) ; Dye v. White , 976 P.2d 1086, 1087-88 (Okla. Civ. App. 1999) ; Wingard v. Wingard , 11 Pa. D. & C.4th 343, 347 (Ct. C.P. 1991) ... ...
  • Russ v. Russ
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court
    • April 1, 2021
    ... ... , Alwan v. Alwan , 70 Va.App. 599, 830 S.E.2d 45, 48 (2019) (distinguishing Howell by concluding that "it said nothing about the propriety of a state court's consideration of military disability benefits as a source of funds in making a child support award " (emphasis added)); Matter of Braunstein , 173 N.H. 38, 236 A.3d 870, 876 (2020) (same) cert. denied , U.S. , 141 S. Ct. 815, 208 L.Ed.2d 399 (2020) ; Lesh v. Lesh , 257 N.C.App. 471, 809 S.E.2d 890, 899 (2018) (same); Phillips v. Phillips , 347 Ga.App. 524, 820 S.E.2d 158, 163-164 (2018) (vacating the trial court's order in part because ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT