Mansell v. Mansell

Citation490 U.S. 581,109 S.Ct. 2023,104 L.Ed.2d 675
Decision Date30 May 1989
Docket NumberNo. 87-201,87-201
PartiesGerald E. MANSELL, Appellant v. Gaye M. MANSELL
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

In direct response to McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 101 S.Ct. 2728, 69 L.Ed.2d 589, which held that federal law as it then existed completely pre-empted the application of state community property law to military retirement pay, Congress enacted the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act (Act), 10 U.S.C. § 1408 (1982 ed. and Supp. V), which authorizes state courts to treat as community property "disposable retired or retainer pay," § 1408(c)(1), specifically defining such pay to exclude, inter alia, any military retirement pay waived in order for the retiree to receive veterans' disability benefits, § 1408(a)(4)(B). The Act also creates a mechanism whereby the Federal Government will make direct community property payments of up to 50 percent of disposable retired or retainer pay to certain former spouses who present state-court orders granting such pay. A pre-McCarty property settlement agreement between appellant and appellee, who were divorced in a county Superior Court in California, a community property State, provided that appellant would pay appellee 50 percent of his total military retirement pay, including that portion of such pay which he had waived in order to receive military disability benefits. After the Act's passage, the Superior Court denied appellant's request to modify the divorce decree by removing the provision requiring him to share his total retirement pay with appellee. The State Court of Appeal affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that the Act precluded the lower court from treating as community property the military retirement pay appellant had waived to receive disability benefits. In so holding, the court relied on a State Supreme Court decision which reasoned that the Act did not limit a state court's ability to treat total military retirement pay as community property and to enforce a former spouse's rights to such pay through remedies other than direct Federal Government payments.

Held: The Act does not grant state courts the power to treat as property divisible upon divorce military retirement pay waived by the retiree in order to receive veterans' disability benefits. In light of § 1408(a)(4)(B)'s limiting language as to such waived pay, the Act's plain and precise language establishes that § 1408(c)(1) grants state courts the authority to treat only disposable retired pay, not total retired pay, as community property. Appellee's argument that the Act has no pre-emptive effect of its own and must be read as a garnishment statute designed solely to limit when the Federal Government will make direct payments to a former spouse, and that, accordingly, § 1408(a)(4)(B) defines "disposable retired or retainer pay" only because payments under the statutory direct payment mechanism are limited to amounts defined by that term, is flawed for two reasons. First, the argument completely ignores the fact that § 1408(c)(1) also uses the quoted phrase to limit specifically and plainly the extent to which state courts may treat military retirement pay as community property. Second, each of § 1408(c)'s other subsections imposes new substantive limits on state courts' power to divide military retirement pay, and it is unlikely that all of the section, except for § 1408(c)(1), was intended to pre-empt state law. Thus, the garnishment argument misplaces its reliance on the fact that the Act's saving clause expressly contemplates that a retiree will be liable for "other payments" in excess of those made under the direct payment mechanism, since that clause is more plausibly interpreted as serving the limited purpose of defeating any inference that the mechanism displaced state courts' authority to divide and garnish property not covered by the mechanism. Appellee's contention that giving effect to the plain and precise statutory language would thwart the Act's obvious purposes of rejecting McCarty and restoring to state courts their pre-McCarty authority is not supported by the legislative history, which, read as a whole, indicates that Congress intended both to create new benefits for former spouses and to place on state courts limits designed to protect military retirees. Pp. 587-594.

Reversed and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, STEVENS, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 595.

Douglas B. Cone, Merced, Cal., for appellant.

Dennis A. Cornell, Merced, Cal. for appellee.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal, we decide whether state courts, consistent with the federal Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act, 10 U.S.C. § 1408 (1982 ed. and Supp. V) (Former Spouses' Protection Act or Act), may treat as property divisible upon divorce military retirement pay waived by the retiree in order to receive veterans' disability benefits. We hold that they may not.

I
A.

Members of the Armed Forces who serve for a specified period, generally at least 20 years, may retire with retired pay. 10 U.S.C. § 3911 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V) (Army); § 6321 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V) (Navy and Marine Corps); § 8911 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V) (Air Force). The amount of retirement pay a veteran is eligible to receive is calculated according to the number of years served and the rank achieved. §§ 3926 and 3991 (Army); §§ 6325-6327 (Navy and Marine Corps); § 8929 (Air Force). Veterans who became disabled as a result of military service are eligible for disability benefits. 38 U.S.C. § 310 (wartime disability); § 331 (peacetime disability). The amount of disability benefits a veteran is eligible to receive is calculated according to the seriousness of the disability and the degree to which the veteran's ability to earn a living has been impaired. §§ 314 and 355.

In order to prevent double dipping, a military retiree may receive disability benefits only to the extent that he waives a corresponding amount of his military retirement pay. § 3105.1 Because disability benefits are exempt from federal, state, and local taxation, § 3101(a), military retirees who waive their retirement pay in favor of disability benefits in- crease their after-tax income. Not surprisingly, waivers of retirement pay are common.

California, like several other States, treats property acquired during marriage as community property. When a couple divorces, a state court divides community property equally between the spouses while each spouse retains full ownership of any separate property. See Cal.Civ.Code Ann. § 4800(a) (West 1983 and Supp.1989). California treats military retirement payments as community property to the extent they derive from military service performed during the marriage. See, e.g., Casas v. Thompson, 42 Cal.3d 131, 139, 228 Cal.Rptr. 33, 37-38, 720 P.2d 921, 925, cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1012, 107 S.Ct. 659, 93 L.Ed.2d 713 (1986).

In McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 101 S.Ct. 2728, 69 L.Ed.2d 589 (1981), we held that the federal statutes then governing military retirement pay prevented state courts from treating military retirement pay as community property. We concluded that treating such pay as community property would do clear damage to important military personnel objectives. Id., at 232-235, 101 S.Ct., at 2741-2743. We reasoned that Congress intended that military retirement pay reach the veteran and no one else. Id., at 228, 101 S.Ct., at 2739. In reaching this conclusion, we relied particularly on Congress' refusal to pass legislation that would have allowed former spouses to garnish military retirement pay to satisfy property settlements. Id., at 228-232, 101 S.Ct., at 2739-2741. Finally, noting the distressed plight of many former spouses of military members, we observed that Congress was free to change the statutory framework. Id., at 235-236, 101 S.Ct. at 2742-2743.

In direct response to McCarty, Congress enacted the Former Spouses' Protection Act, which authorizes state courts to treat "disposable retired or retainer pay" as community property. 10 U.S.C. § 1408(c)(1).2 " 'Disposable retired or retainer pay' " is defined as "the total monthly retired or retainer pay to hich a military member is entitled," minus certain deductions. § 1408(a)(4) (1982 ed. and Supp. V). Among the amounts required to be deducted from total pay are any amounts waived in order to receive disability benefits. § 1408(a)(4)(B).3

The Act also creates a payments mechanism under which the Federal Government will make direct payments to a former spouse who presents, to the Secretary of the relevant military service, a state-court order granting her a portion of the military retiree's disposable retired or retainer pay. This direct payments mechanism is limited in two ways. § 1408(d). First, only a former spouse who was married to a military member "for a period of 10 years or more during which the member performed at least 10 years of service creditable in determining the member's eligibility for retired or retainer pay," § 1408(d)(2), is eligible to receive direct community property payments. Second, the Federal Government will not make community property payments that exceed 50 percent of disposable retired or retainer pay. § 1408(e)(1).

B

Appellant Gerald E. Mansell and appellee Gaye M. Mansell were married for 23 years and are the parents of six children. Their marriage ended in 1979 with a divorce decree from the Merced County, California, Superior Court. At that time, Major Mansell received both Air Force retirement pay and, pursuant to a waiver of a portion of that pay, disability benefits. Mrs. Mansell and Major Mansell entered into a property settlement which provided, in part, that Major Mansell would pay Mrs. Mansell 50 percent of his total...

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