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U.S. Supreme Court issues ruling in military divorce case

As Albuquerque service members and their spouses can attest, active deployment and other aspects of being in the military can take its toll on a marriage, sometimes leading a couple to decide that divorce is their best option. Asset division, however, can be more complicated in a military divorce than a civilian divorce, as one recent case shows.

In the past, when a service member divorced, his or her retirement benefits would be subject to asset division. However, sometimes a service member would relinquish part of his or her retirement benefits in exchange for disability benefits, which are not counted as marital property. However, because of that some states (but not all) mandated that service members had to pay their ex the difference to make up for the loss of the retirement benefits they would have had. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a lower court cannot issue such an order.

In the case at issue, a military couple ended their marriage in 1991. Since, under federal law, the husband's upcoming pension was marital property it was divided, with half of it going to his ex-wife. However, in 2005 the husband was granted a 20 percent disability rating. He subsequently chose to relinquish part of his monthly retirement benefits amounting to approximately $250 so that he could receive the entire amount of his VA award. However, this meant that his ex-wife's portion of the previous monthly retirement benefits was decreased by approximately $125 per month.

An Arizona court determined that the husband had to find the means to make up the amount of money his ex-wife had lost since he chose to receive disability benefits. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this ruling, stating that servicemembers should not be ordered by a court to make up the difference in payments.

Some officials have applauded the ruling, stating that it provides consistency between states, some of which previously required repayment and some of which did not. However, others are concerned about how the ruling will affect former spouses who need these benefits to stay afloat financially following a divorce. In the end, those who have questions about how this new ruling will affect them may want to seek legal advice.

Source: Military.com, "Supreme Court Ruling May Cut Spouses' Divorce Pension Payments," Amy Bushatz, May 18, 2017

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