Mansell v. Mansell
490 U.S. 581, 109 S.Ct. 2023, 104 L.Ed.2d 675 (1989)

  • Gerald was retired from the military and was married to Gaye for 23 years and 6 kids. They got a divorce.
    • Gerald was receiving disability pay from the military. Under Federal law (10 U.S.C. §3105), to prevent double dipping, Gerald had to voluntarily waive part of his military pension in order to get his disability benefits.
      • That was still a good deal because disability benefits are non-taxable.
  • At Trial, an issue came up with what constituted marital property:
    • Disability benefits are generally considered separate property and are therefore not divisible upon divorce.
    • Under California law, a pension is considered marital property and is therefore divisible.
      • But, in McCarty v. McCarty (453 U.S. 210 (1981)), the US Supreme Court said that under the law as it was at the time, States could not count military pensions as community property.
        • The idea was that military benefits should be enjoyed by the soldier, not by the non-military spouse.
    • But what to do with the pension benefits that Gerald was voluntarily waiving?
      • In response to McCarty, Congress had passed a specific Statute, the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (10 U.S.C. §1408(c)(1)) that vaguely said that States can treat military pensions (aka retirement benefits) as community property but that any amount waived to receive disability benefits is to be deducted before the money is divided between the ex-spouses.
      • On the other hand, in general, when a spouse voluntarily lowers their income, they do not get to factor that into division of property.
        • For example, you can’t quit your job and then claim you can’t make support payments because you are unemployed.
  • The Trial Court found for Gaye and ordered Gerald to pay her 50% of his retirement pay before factoring the disability waiver. He appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Gerald appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that McCarty still ruled and that 10 U.S.C. §1408(c)(1) only applied to disposable retirement pay (which wouldn’t include money that was waived.)
  • The California Supreme Court denied cert. Gerald appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court looked at the plain language of 10 U.S.C. §1408(c)(1), as well as the legislative history and legislative intent. They found that the Statute, as written, did not allow States to treat waived military pension benefits as community property.
      • The Statute very clearly said that disability benefits were exempt. But preventing non-military spouses from getting money was probably an unintended consequence.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that 10 U.S.C. §1408(c)(1) was a remedial Statute designed specifically to get around McCarty. Therefore, it should be read to allow States to consider waived pension benefits as community property. To do otherwise would be inequitable, since disability benefits could equal up to 80% of total benefits.
    • It was also argued that courts could compensate for the inability to divide disability benefits by unequally dividing marital property.
      • So instead of giving Gerald 50% of the combined assets, maybe they’d just give him 40%. They wouldn’t technically be dividing the disability benefits, but they would be using the disability benefits as a factor in equitable division of the marital property.
      • Of course, if there is no marital property to divide, that’s not a possibility.