Mansell v. Mansell/Opinion of the Court

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Mansell v. Mansell by Thurgood Marshall
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion
O'Connor


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.

* 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 increase 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).

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 military retirement pay, including that portion of retirement pay waived so that Major Mansell could receive disability benefits. Civ. No. 55594 (May 29, 1979). In 1983, Major Mansell asked the Superior Court to modify the divorce decree by removing the provision that required him to share his total retirement pay with Mrs. Mansell. The Superior Court denied Major Mansell's request without opinion.

Major Mansell appealed to the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, arguing that both the Former Spouses' Protection Act and the anti-attachment clause that protects a veteran's receipt of disability benefits, 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a) (1982 ed. and Supp. IV), [4] precluded the Superior Court from treating military retirement pay that had been waived to receive disability benefits as community property. Relying on the decision of the Supreme Court of California in Casas v. Thompson, supra, the Court of Appeal rejected that portion of Major Mansell's argument based on the Former Spouses' Protection Act. 5 Civ. No. F002872 (Jan. 30, 1987). [5] Casas held that after the passage of the Former Spouses' Protection Act, federal law no longer pre-empted state community property law as it applies to military retirement pay. The Casas court 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 payments from the Federal Government. 42 Cal.3d, at 143-151, 228 Cal.Rptr., at 40-46, 720 P.2d, at 928-933. The Court of Appeal did not discuss the anti-attachment clause, 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a). [6] The Supreme Court of California denied Major Mansell's petition for review.

We noted probable jurisdiction, 487 U.S. 1217, 108 S.Ct. 2868, 101 L.Ed.2d 904 (1988), and now reverse.

Because domestic relations are preeminently matters of state law, we have consistently recognized that Congress, when it passes general legislation, rarely intends to displace state authority in this area. See, e.g., Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619, 628, 107 S.Ct. 2029, 2035, 95 L.Ed.2d 599 (1987); Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, 581, 99 S.Ct. 802, 808, 59 L.Ed.2d 1 (1979). Thus we have held that we will not find preemption absent evidence that it is " 'positively required by direct enactment.' " Hisquierdo, supra, at 581, 99 S.Ct. at 808 (quoting Wetmore v. Markoe, 196 U.S. 68, 77, 25 S.Ct. 172, 176, 49 L.Ed. 390 (1904)). The instant case, however, presents one of those rare instances where Congress has directly and specifically legislated in the area of domestic relations.

It is clear from both the language of the Former Spouses' Protection Act, see, e.g., § 1408(c)(1), and its legislative history, see, e.g., H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 97-749, p. 165 (1982); S.Rep. No. 97-502, pp. 1-3, 16 (1982), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1555, that Congress sought to change the legal landscape created by the McCarty decision. [7] Because pre-existing federal law, as construed by this Court, completely pre-empted the application of state community property law to military retirement pay, Congress could overcome the McCarty decision only by enacting an affirmative grant of authority giving the States the power to treat military retirement pay as community property. Cf. Midlantic Nat. Bank v. New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection, 474 U.S. 494, 501, 106 S.Ct. 755, 759-60, 88 L.Ed.2d 859 (1986).

The appellant and appellee differ sharply on the scope of Congress' modification of McCarty. Mrs. Mansell views the Former Spouses' Protection Act as a complete congressional rejection of McCarty holding that state law is pre-empted; she reads the Act as restoring to state courts all pre-McCarty authority. Major Mansell, supported by the United States, argues that the Former Spouses' Protection Act is only a partial rejection of the McCarty rule that federal law preempts state law regarding military retirement pay. [8]

Where, as here, the question is one of statutory construction, we begin with the language of the statute. See, e.g., Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 896, 104 S.Ct. 1541, 1547-48, 79 L.Ed.2d 891 (1984); Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108, 100 S.Ct. 2051, 2056, 64 L.Ed.2d 766 (1980). Mrs. Mansell's argument faces a formidable obstacle in the language of the Former Spouses' Protection Act. Section 1408(c)(1) of the Act affirmatively grants state courts the power to divide military retirement pay, yet its language is both precise and limited. It provides that "a court may treat disposable retired or retainer pay . . . either as property solely of the member or as property of the member and his spouse in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction of such court." § 1408(c)(1). The Act's definitional section specifically defines the term "disposable retired or retainer pay" to exclude, inter alia, military retirement pay waived in order to receive veterans' disability payments. § 1408(a)(4)(B). [9] Thus, under the Act's plain and precise language, state courts have been granted the authority to treat disposable retired pay as community property; they have not been granted the authority to treat total retired pay as community property.

Mrs. Mansell attempts to overcome the limiting language contained in the definition, § 1408(a)(4)(B), by reading the Act as a garnishment statute designed solely to set out the circumstances under which, pursuant to a court order, the Federal Government will make direct payments to a former spouse. According to this view, § 1408(a)(4)(B) defines "[d]isposable retired or retainer pay" only because payments under the federal direct payments mechanism are limited to amounts defined by that term.

The garnishment argument relies heavily on the Act's saving clause. That clause provides:

"Nothing in this section shall be construed to relieve a member of liability for the payment of alimony, child support, or other payments required by a court order on the grounds that payments made out of disposable retired or retainer pay under this section have been made in the maximum amount permitted under [the direct payments mechanism]. Any such unsatisfied obligation of a member may be enforced by any means available under law other than the means provided under this section in any case in which the maximum amount permitted under . . . [the direct payments mechanism] has been paid." § 1408(e)(6) (emphasis added).

Mrs. Mansell argues that, because the saving clause expressly contemplates "other payments" in excess of those made under the direct payments mechanism, the Act does not "attempt to tell the state courts what they may or may not do with the underlying property." Brief for Appellee 17. For the reasons discussed below, we find a different interpretation more plausible. In our view, the saving clause serves the limited purpo e of defeating any inference that the federal direct payments mechanism displaced the authority of state courts to divide and garnish property not covered by the mechanism. Cf. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S., at 584, 99 S.Ct., at 809-10 (to prohibit garnishment is to prohibit division of property); Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655, 70 S.Ct. 398, 94 L.Ed. 424 (1950) (same).

First, the most serious flaw in the garnishment argument is that it completely ignores § 1408(c)(1). Mrs. Mansell provides no explanation for the fact that the defined term-"disposable retired or retainer pay"-is used in § 1408(c)(1) to limit specifically and plainly the extent to which state courts may treat military retirement pay as community property.

Second, the view that the Act is solely a garnishment statute and therefore not intended to pre-empt the authority of state courts is contradicted not only by § 1408(c)(1), but also by the other subsections of § 1408(c). Sections 1408(c)(2), (c)(3), and (c)(4) impose new substantive limits on state courts' power to divide military retirement pay. Section 1408(c)(2) prevents a former spouse from transferring, selling, or otherwise disposing of her community interest in the military retirement pay. [10] Section 1408(c)(3) provides that a state court cannot order a military member to retire so that the former spouse can immediately begin receiving her portion of military retirement pay. [11] And § 1408(c)(4) prevents spouses from forum shopping for a State with favorable divorce laws. [12] Because each of these provisions pre-empts state law, the argument that the Act has no pre-emptive effect of its own must fail. [13] Significantly, Congress placed each of these substantive restrictions on state courts in the same section of the Act as § 1408(c)(1). We think it unlikely that every subsection of § 1408(c), except § 1408(c)(1), was intended to pre-empt state law.

In the face of such plain and precise statutory language, Mrs. Mansell faces a daunting standard. She cannot prevail without clear evidence that reading the language literally would thwart the obvious purposes of the Act. See, e.g., Trans Alaska Pipeline Rate Cases, 436 U.S. 631, 643, 98 S.Ct. 2053, 2061, 56 L.Ed.2d 591 (1978). The legislative history does not indicate the reason for Congress' decision to shelter from community property law that portion of military retirement pay waived to receive veterans' disability payments. [14] But the absence of legislative history on this decision is immaterial in light of the plain and precise language of the statute; Congress is not required to build a record in the legislative history to defend its policy choices.

Because of the absence of evidence of specific intent in the legislative history, Mrs. Mansell resorts to arguments about the broad purposes of the Act. But this reliance is misplaced because, at this general level, there are statements that both contradict and support her arguments. Her argument that the Act contemplates no federal pre-emption is supported by statements in the Senate Report and the House Conference Report that the purpose of the Act is to overcome the McCarty decision and to restore power to the States. [15] But the Senate Report and the House Conference Report also contain statements indicating that Congress rejected the uncomplicated option of removing all federal pre-emption and returning unlimited authority to the States. [16] Indeed, a bill that would have eliminated all federal pre-emption died in the Senate Committee. [17] Her argument that Congress primarily intended to protect former spouses is supported by evidence that Members of Congress were moved by, and responding to, the distressed economic plight of military wives after a divorce. [18] But the Senate Report and the House debates contain statements which reveal that Congress was concerned as well with protecting the interests of military members. [19]

Thus, the legislative history, read as a whole, indicates that Congress intended both to create new benefits for former spouses and to place limits on state courts designed to protect military retirees. Our task is to interpret the statute as best we can, not to second-guess the wisdom of the congressional policy choice. See, e.g., Rodriguez v. United States, 480 U.S. 522, 526, 107 S.Ct. 1391, 1393, 94 L.Ed.2d 533 (1987) (per curiam ) ("Deciding what competing values will or will not be sacrificed to the achievement of a particular objective is the very essence of legislative choice"). Given Congress' mixed purposes, the legislative history does not clearly support Mrs. Mansell's view that giving effect to the plain and precise language of the statute would thwart the obvious purposes of the Act.

We realize that reading the statute literally may inflict economic harm on many former spouses. But we decline to misread the statute in order to reach a sympathetic result when such a reading requires us to do violence to the plain language of the statute and to ignore much of the legislative history. Congress chose the language that requires us to decide as we do, and Congress is free to change it.

For the reasons stated above, we hold that the Former Spouses' Protection Act does not grant state courts the power to treat as property divisible upon divorce military retirement pay that has been waived to receive veterans' disability benefits. The judgment of the California Court of Appeal is hereby reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice O'CONNOR, with whom Justice BLACKMUN joins, dissenting.

Notes[edit]

^1  For example, if a military retiree is eligible for $1500 a month in retirement pay and $500 a month in disability benefits, he must waive $500 of retirement pay before he can receive any disability benefits.

^2  The language of the Act covers both community property and equitable distribution States, as does our decision today. Because this case concerns a community property State, for the sake of simplicity we refer to § 1408(c)(1) as authorizing state courts to treat "disposable retired or retainer pay" as community property.

^3  Also deducted from total military retirement pay are amounts: (a) owed by the military member to the United States; (b) required by law to be deducted from total pay, including employment taxes, and fines and forfeitures ordered by courts-martial; (c) properly deducted for federal, state, and local income taxes; (d) withheld pursuant to other provisions under the Internal Revenue Code; (e) equal to the amount of retired pay of a member retired for physical disability; and (f) deducted to create an annuity for the former spouse. 10 U.S.C. §§ 1408(a)(4)(A)-(F) (1982 ed. and Supp. V).

^4  That clause provides that veterans' benefits "shall not be assignable except to the extent specifically authorized by law, and . . . shall be exempt from the claim[s] of creditors, and 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 [veteran]." 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a) (1982 ed. and Supp. V).

^5  In a supplemental brief, Mrs. Mansell argues that the doctrine of res judicata should have prevented this pre-McCarty property settlement from being reopened. McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 101 S.Ct. 2728, 69 L.Ed.2d 589 (1981). The California Court of Appeal, however, decided that it was appropriate, under California law, to reopen the settlement and reach the federal question. 5 Civ. No. F002872 (Jan. 30, 1987). Whether the doctrine of res judicata, as applied in California, should have barred the reopening of pre-McCarty settlements is a matter of state law over which we have no jurisdiction. The federal question is therefore properly before us.

^6  Because we decide that the Former Spouses' Protection Act precludes States from treating as community property retirement pay waived to receive veterans' disability benefits, we need not decide whether the anti-attachment clause, § 3101(a), independently protects such pay. See, e.g., Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619, 107 S.Ct. 2029, 95 L.Ed.2d 599 (1987); Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655, 70 S.Ct. 398, 94 L.Ed. 424 (1950).

^7  Congress also demonstrated its focus on McCarty when it chose June 25, 1981, the day before McCarty was decided, as the applicable date for some of the Act's provisions. 10 U.S.C. § 1408(c)(1); see also note following § 1408, Pub.L. 97-252, § 1006(b) (transition provisions).

^8  Although the United States has filed an amicus brief supporting Major Mansell, its initial amicus brief, filed before the Court noted jurisdiction, supported Mrs. Mansell.

^9  The statute provides in pertinent part:

" 'Disposable retired or retainer pay' means the total monthly retired or retainer pay to which a member is entitled . . . less amounts which-

  • * * * *

"(B) are required by law to be and are deducted from the retired or retainer pay of such member, including fines and forfeitures ordered by courts-martials, Federal employment taxes, and amounts waived in order to receive compensation under title 5 or title 38 [disability payments]." § 1408(a)(4)(B).

^10  The Senate Report expressly contemplates that § 1408(c)(2) will preempt state law. S.Rep. No. 97-502, p. 16 (1982).

^11  There was some concern expressed at the Senate hearings on the Act that state courts could direct a military member to retire. See, e.g., Hearings before the Subcommittee on Manpower and Personnel of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., 132-133 (1982) (Sen. Exon); id., at 70-71 (veterans' group); id., at 184 (Air Force). Thus the Senate version of the bill contained § 1408(c)(3) in order to ensure that state courts did not have such power, S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 17, and at conference the House agreed to add the provision. H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 97-749, p. 167 (1982).

^12  A state court may not treat disposable retirement pay as community property unless it has jurisdiction over the military member by reason of (1) residence, other than by military assignment in the territorial jurisdiction of the court, (2) domicile, or (3) consent. § 1408(c)(4). Although the Senate Committee had decided not to include any forum shopping restrictions, seeing "no need to limit the jurisdiction of the State courts by restricting the benefits afforded by this bill . . .," S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 9, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1604, the House version of the bill contained the restrictions, and at conference, the Senate agreed to add them. H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 97-749, supra, at 167.

^13  That Congress intended the substantive limits in § 1408(c)(1) to be, to some extent, distinct from the limits on the direct payments mechanism contained in § 1408(d) is demonstrated by the legislative compromise that resulted in the direct payments mechanism being available only to former spouses who had been married to the military retiree for 10 years or more. § 1408(d)(2). Under the House version of the bill, military retirement pay could be treated as community property only if the couple had been married for 10 years or more. H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 97-749, supra, at 165. The Senate Committee had consid red, but rejected, such a provision. S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 9-11. The conferees agreed to remove the House restriction. Instead, they limited the federal direct payments mechanism to marriages that had lasted 10 years or more. H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 97-749, supra, at 166-167. Under this compromise, state courts have been granted the authority to award a portion of disposable military retired pay to former spouses who were married to the military member for less than 10 years, but such former spouses may not take advantage of the direct payments mechanism.

^14  The only reference to the definitional section is contained in the Senate Report which states that the deductions from total retired pay, including retirement pay waived in favor of veterans' disability payments, "generally parallel those existing deductions which may be made from the pay of Federal employees and military personnel before such pay is subject to garnishment for alimony or child support payments under section 459 of the Social Security Act. (42 U.S.C. 659)." S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 14, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1609. This statement, however, describes the defined term in § 1408(a)(4). It is not helpful in determining why Congress chose to use the defined term-"disposable retired or retainer pay"-to limit state-court authority in § 1408(c)(1).

^15  See, e.g., S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 1, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1596 ("The primary purpose of the bill is to remove the effect of the United States Supreme Court decision in McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 101 S.Ct. 2728, 69 L.Ed.2d 589 (1981). The bill would accomplish this objective by permitting Federal, State, and certain other courts, consistent with the appropriate laws, to once again consider military retired pay when fixing the property rights between the parties to a divorce, dissolution, annulment or legal separation"). See also id., at 5 and 16; H.R. onf.Rep. No. 97-749, supra, at 165.

^16  H.R.Conf.Rep. No. 97-749, supra, at 165, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1570 ("The House amendment would permit disposable military retired pay to be considered as property in divorce settlements under certain specified conditions ") (emphasis added); ibid. ("The House Amendment contained several provisions that would place restrictions on the division of retired pay"); S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 4, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1599 ("[Senate] 1814 imposes three distinct limits on the division or enforcement of court orders against military retired pay in divorce cases") (emphasis added).

^17  Entitled "Nonpreemption of State law" the bill provided that "[f]or purposes of division of marital property of any member or former member of the armed forces upon dissolution of such member's marriage, the law of the State in which the dissolution of marriage proceeding was instituted shall be dispositive on all matters pertaining to the division of any retired, retirement, or retainer pay to which such member or former member is entitled or will become entitled." S. 1453, 97th Cong., 1st Sess. (1981).

^18  The Senate Committee pointed out that "frequent change-of-station moves and the special pressures placed on the military spouse as a homemaker make it extremely difficult to pursue a career affording economic security, job skills and pension protection." S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 6, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1601. The language of the Act, and much of its legislative history, is written in gender neutral terms, and there is no doubt that the Act applies equally to both former husbands and former wives. But "it is quite evident from the legislative history that Congress acted largely in response to the plight of the military wife." Horkovich, Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act: Congress' Answer to McCarty v. McCarty Goes Beyond the Fundamental Question, 23 Air Force L.Rev. 287, 308 (1982-1983) (emphasis in original).

^19  See, e.g., S.Rep. No. 97-502, supra, at 7, U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1982, p. 1611 ("All agreed that some form of remedial legislation which is fair and equitable to both spouses was necessary to provide a solution to the McCarty decision"); see also id., at 11; nn. 10, 11, 12, and 16, supra.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).