New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Triggers Win for Maryland Husband in Military Benefits Dispute

Most areas of the law, including family law, are evolving and changing constantly, to one degree or another. Ensuring that you give yourself a good chance of success means working with a knowledgeable Maryland divorce attorney who is up-to-date on all of the new changes in the law. These changes can occur through a variety of means, whether it is a new ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals, a new law enacted by the legislature, or, as was the case in one couple’s military pension dispute, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively upturned several decades of Maryland caselaw.

The spouses in the case, Walter and Verdena, were married from 1972 to 2004. During the marriage, the husband served in the Army National Guard from 1985 to 1987. (He previously served before the marriage from 1969 to 1971.) During his four years in the National Guard, the husband suffered three injuries. The husband retired from the National Guard in 1998 and filed for retirement at that time.

The couple’s 2004 divorce judgment stated that the wife was to receive one-third of the marital portion of the husband’s military pension benefits. In 2009, though, the husband sought a re-evaluation of his disability status. The government increased the husband’s disability rating, which meant that he was entitled to receive 30 percent of his compensation as disability benefits, instead of the previous 10 percent.

This increase in the husband’s disability benefits reduced his pension on a dollar-for-dollar basis, meaning that his pension benefits declined substantially. This had the total effect of the husband receiving the same amount of total benefits but the wife’s monthly payment being much smaller. This occurs because the law says that, while a military pension may be marital property subject to a divorce division, disability benefits always belong 100% to the veteran spouse.

The wife went back to court, and the trial court determined that the intent of the original divorce judgment was for the wife to receive the amount she was getting before the disability rating change. As a result, the court ordered the husband to pay the wife directly the difference between what she had been getting and the amount she received after the change.

The husband appealed, and the appeals court reluctantly ruled in his favor. The appeals court noted that, in the past, Maryland courts had consistently ruled in favor of the recipient spouse in these situations. Allowing the former military spouse to unilaterally reduce the recipient spouse’s payments by waiving certain benefits (like a pension) in favor of other benefits (like disability) constituted a breach of the agreement between the two spouses worked out as part of the divorce, according to the courts.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision issued earlier this year, however, changed all of that, according to the Court of Special Appeals. The Howell v. Howell decision essentially established that a veteran’s “ability to elect disability benefits over retirement pay overrides our courts’ ability to amend the marital property award to reflect post-judgment changes in circumstances.” The Court of Special Appeals interpreted the Howell ruling as declaring that, since a veteran always has the possibility of obtaining a new disability rating and an increase in disability benefits (along with a commensurate decrease in pension benefits), that meant that “the parties and state court should have factored this possibility when valuing the parties’ marital property.” If they do not, the non-veteran spouse may be on the losing end (as the wife was here).

Whether yours is a property division, alimony, or other family law dispute, consult knowledgeable Maryland property division attorney Anthony A. Fatemi for your legal needs. Our team has been helping spouses and parents with a wide spectrum of family law cases for many years. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court Upholds Marital Agreement Dividing Pension Benefits, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 15, 2015

Maryland Court Reviews Wife’s Request for Certain Pension Benefits in Divorce, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, May 14, 2015


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