Mattson v. Mattson, A16-1535

CourtCourt of Appeals of Minnesota
Citation903 N.W.2d 233
Docket NumberA16-1535
Parties In re the Marriage of: Diana Lynn Berberich f/k/a Diane Lynn MATTSON, petitioner, Respondent, v. Mark Steven MATTSON, Appellant.
Decision Date02 October 2017

903 N.W.2d 233

In re the Marriage of: Diana Lynn Berberich f/k/a Diane Lynn MATTSON, petitioner, Respondent,
Mark Steven MATTSON, Appellant.


Court of Appeals of Minnesota.

Filed October 2, 2017
Review Denied December 27, 2017

Jennifer R. Wellner, Wellner & Isaacson, PLLP, Circle Pines, Minnesota (for respondent).

Francis Herbert White III, Francis White Law, P.L.L.C., Woodbury, Minnesota (for appellant).

Margaret Erickson, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, Worthington, Minnesota; and Michael D. Dittberner, Linder, Dittberner & Bryant, Ltd., Edina, Minnesota; and Mary Catherine Lauhead, Law Offices of Mary Catherine Lauhead, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Johanna Clyborne, Brekke, Clyborne & Ribich, L.L.C., Shakopee, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Family Law and Military and Veterans Affairs Sections of the Minnesota State Bar Association).

Anne M. Honsa, Honsa & Associates, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and David L. Olson, Edina, Minnesota (for amicus curiae The Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers).

Benjamin Lee Krause, Krause Law, PLLC, Woodbury, Minnesota; and Carson J. Tucker (pro hac vice), Law Offices of Carson J. Tucker, Ann Arbor, Michigan (for amicus curiae Operation Firing for Effect and Forgotten Warriors Project, Inc.).

Considered and decided by Jesson, Presiding Judge; Rodenberg, Judge; and Bratvold, Judge.


Mark Mattson asserts that federal law renders unenforceable the district court's judgment directing him to pay Diana Berberich 40% of his military disability compensation. In light of the recent United States Supreme Court decision, Howell v. Howell, ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 1400, 197 L.Ed.2d 781 (2017), we agree. Federal law preempts state courts from dividing a veteran's military disability compensation as marital property, even where, as here, the parties agreed to the division. As a result, we reverse and remand for entry of judgment reflecting the unenforceability of Mattson's obligation to pay military disability compensation to Berberich. In addition, because further findings are required on the issue of attorney fees, and because the appropriateness of any conduct-based attorney fees should be reconsidered in light of this opinion, we remand for further reconsideration of and findings on attorney fees.


Appellant Mark Steven Mattson enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1984 and, while serving, married respondent Diana Lynn Berberich in November 1992 in Virginia. Mattson retired from the military in 2004 and was granted a 70% disability rating for injuries suffered during active duty service.

Mattson and Berberich separated in June 2014, and the following October, she filed for divorce in Minnesota. The parties finalized their divorce in February 2015 via a stipulated decree approved by the district court. At that time, they had two adult children. Berberich had been a homemaker and care provider for the parties' children during the majority of the marriage. At the time of the divorce, Berberich was employed part-time. Mattson was receiving military retired pay as well as military disability compensation.1

903 N.W.2d 236

Pursuant to the decree, the parties agreed that Berberich was in need of temporary and permanent spousal maintenance, but they agreed to reserve the issue of spousal maintenance based upon Berberich's receipt of a share of Mattson's disability compensation. Under the stipulated decree, Berberich was to receive 40% of Mattson's "gross monthly military retirement pay," as well as 40% of "the gross amount of" Mattson's military disability compensation. The decree also divided personal property, debts, various financial accounts, real property, and other assets.

Following the divorce, Mattson made only sporadic payments on his obligations under the decree, resulting in substantial arrearages. In January 2016, Berberich attempted to enforce the terms of the decree. She sought the military retired pay and disability compensation owed under the decree, as well as other relief. Mattson opposed most of Berberich's requests.

On July 25, 2016, the district court filed an order directing Mattson to immediately pay to Berberich the military retired pay and disability compensation due and owing pursuant to the decree. The district court also granted other relief, including attorney fees. Mattson appeals.2


I. Did the district court err by enforcing a stipulated decree dividing as marital property Mattson's military disability compensation?

II. Are Mattson's challenges concerning health care coverage and the release of Veterans Affairs (VA) information moot?

III. Did the district court properly award attorney fees?


I. The district court erred by enforcing that portion of the parties' stipulated decree dividing, as property, Mattson's disability compensation.

The primary issue before us is whether federal law preempts enforcement of the portion of the parties' decree that divides Mattson's disability compensation.

Historically, two important policy goals have dictated how military retirement benefits are divided in dissolution proceedings. Congress sought to protect veterans' benefits to ensure that they reach veterans, with the goal of incentivizing participation in the military and maintaining a strong national defense. See McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 234, 101 S.Ct. 2728, 2742, 69 L.Ed.2d 589 (1981) (discussing federal interests in the area of military retired pay), superseded by statute, Uniformed Services

903 N.W.2d 237

Former Spouses' Protection Act, 10 U.S.C. § 1408 (1982), as recognized in Barker v. Kansas, 503 U.S. 594, 603, 112 S.Ct. 1619, 1625, 118 L.Ed.2d 243 (1992). Yet Congress also protected spouses of veterans by ensuring that they are compensated in divorce. See Mansell v. Mansell, 490 U.S. 581, 587-89, 109 S.Ct. 2023, 2028-29, 104 L.Ed.2d 675 (1989) (discussing Congress's intent to carve out a portion of veterans' retired pay for spouses). The federal statute straddling these divergent goals is the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act, referred to hereafter as the Act.

Although state law historically controls domestic relations, Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, 581, 99 S.Ct. 802, 808, 59 L.Ed.2d 1 (1979), the Act represents "one of those rare instances where Congress has directly and specifically legislated in the area of domestic relations." Mansell, 490 U.S. at 587, 109 S.Ct. at 2028. Thus, the Act raises the question of preemption. The preemption doctrine is rooted in the Supremacy Clause, which states that the laws of the United States "shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby." U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. Congressional intent is the ultimate touchstone when determining if state action is preempted by federal law. Gade v. Nat'l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass'n, 505 U.S. 88, 96, 112 S.Ct. 2374, 2381, 120 L.Ed.2d 73 (1992).

We review de novo whether a federal statute preempts state law. In re Estate of Barg, 752 N.W.2d 52, 63 (Minn. 2008). We begin by examining military retirement benefits and how preemption works to protect those benefits in divorce, and we then discuss the Act, which allows some retirement benefits to be treated as marital property. Next we turn to the caselaw—including our decision in Gatfield, 682 N.W.2d 632 —interpreting the Act. Finally, we apply the law as most recently interpreted by the Supreme Court in Howell, 137 S.Ct. 1400, to the stipulated judgment dissolving the marriage of Mattson and Berberich.

Military benefits available to veterans and the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act

Military personnel who serve for a set number of years may retire with pay. See, e.g., 10 U.S.C. §§ 6321 - 23 (2012) (Navy and Marine Corps officers). The amount of retired pay is determined by the number of years served and the rank at which the member retires. See 10 U.S.C. §§ 6325 - 27 (2012) (Navy and Marine Corps). Additionally, disability compensation is available to veterans who became disabled as a result of their military service. See 38 U.S.C. § 1110 (2012) (basic entitlement for injury during wartime). Generally, if a veteran is to receive disability compensation, to avoid double-dipping, he or she must waive a corresponding amount of retired pay. See 38 U.S.C. § 5305 (2012).

Congress passed the Act after the Supreme Court held that the federal laws then governing military retired pay preempted state courts from treating military retired pay as community property. McCarty, 453 U.S. at 210, 101 S.Ct. at 2730 ; see also Mansell, 490 U.S. at 581, 109 S.Ct. at 2024 (stating that the Act was a "direct response" to McCarty ).3 In the Act, Congress effectively balanced the military

903 N.W.2d 238

objective of maintaining a national defense with the goal of fairly compensating military spouses in divorce. See Mansell, 490 U.S. at 594, 109 S.Ct. at 2031 (noting congressional intent to both "create new benefits for former spouses and to place limits...

To continue reading

Request your trial
6 cases
  • Williams v. Burks, 2200169
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
    • November 5, 2021
    ...benefits. We must reject this argument as the type of semantic exercise that has been foreclosed by Howell. See also Mattson v. Mattson, 903 N.W.2d 233, 241 (Minn.Ct.App. 2017) ("[A]s recognized in Howell, state courts may not simply circumvent federal preemption [as to disability compensat......
  • Cusick v. Cusick (In re Marriage of Cusick), A19-0224
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Minnesota
    • March 16, 2020
    ...settlements, those benefits may still be used to calculate income for purposes of child support under Rose. See Mattson v. Mattson, 903 N.W.2d 233, 239 n.5 (Minn. App. 2017) (noting that Rose "held that disability benefits were never intended to be exclusively for the veteran, but were inte......
  • Cleveland-Cliffs Minn. Land Dev., LLC v. Minn. Dep't of Natural Res., A18-1030
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Minnesota
    • April 15, 2019
    ...injury to CCMLD. "When an event occurs which makes a decision on the merits unnecessary, anPage 12 appeal is moot." Mattson v. Mattson, 903 N.W.2d 233, 242 (Minn. App. 2017), review denied (Dec. 27, 2017); see also Citizens for Rule of Law v. Senate Comm. on Rules & Admin., 770 N.W.2d 169, ......
  • Huerd v. Huerd (In re Marriage of Huerd), A19-1579
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Minnesota
    • August 3, 2020
    ...division of debt. 9. Husband also argues that the district court's decision conflicts with federal law and with Mattson v. Mattson, 903 N.W.2d 233, 242 (Minn. App. 2017), review denied (Minn. Dec. 27, 2017). While Mattson prohibits division of military disability compensation as property, i......
  • 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