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Supreme Court hears property division dispute in military divorce

The Supreme Court of the United States recently heard oral arguments in Howell v. Howell. The family law case involves a divorced couple's dispute over the husband's military retirement pay.

Back when they divorced in 1991, they came to a property division settlement that included the agreement that wife Sandra would receive half of husband John's Air Force retirement pay. He retired in 1992 after serving 20 years.

However, in 2005 John decided to waive part of his retirement pay for disability benefits. This is often done because disability benefits, unlike retirement pay, are not taxable. The problem for Sandra was that John's decision meant she received $125 less per month as her share of the retirement pay.

On the other side of the coin, John received the money that would have gone to Sandra and saved as well because that money was not taxed.

Sandra asked a court to have her monthly payments restored and asked to be reimbursed for the lowered payments she had received as a result of John's decision. Arizona courts agreed with Sandra, but John asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision in favor of Sandra by the Arizona Supreme Court.

The highest court in the land agreed to do just that.

John has on his side Mansell v. Mansell, a 1989 decision that said state courts are not authorized to treat retirement pay converted to disability benefits as an asset to be divided. Sandra and the federal government (it filed a brief on her behalf) argue that in Mansell, the retirement pay had already been converted to disability benefits at the time of the divorce.

Howell v Howell might well have broad implications for divorced and divorcing military couples.

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