Fifty-eight current and retired service members have reached the end of their long legal battle to overturn the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
The high court’s decision effectively upholds a lower court ruling to dismiss the lawsuit by the service members and retirees who had sought to put military pensions off-limits for division in divorce cases. The USFSPA allows state courts to treat military pensions as common marital property in divorce cases and award a portion of it to the spouse.
The lawsuit named the secretary of defense as the defendant.
A U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., issued a ruling in 2004 to dismiss the case, and that decision was upheld in September by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
“We believe it’s unfortunate what the court has decided with regard to this latest initiative to address the inequities in this onerous law,” said Joe Barnes, national executive secretary of the Fleet Reserve Association.
Supporters of reforming the law will continue their effort, Barnes said.
“Our principal focus has been trying to address this legislatively, and we continue to address the need for reform to members of Congress and staff,” Barnes said, adding that FRA has never advocated that spouses do not deserve benefits.
“But the way the law was written, it is subject to broad interpretation by state courts,” he said.
The USFSPA, enacted in 1982, does not give spouses a right to a specific amount of money in a divorce settlement. The decision whether to award part of retirement pay, and the amount, is up to state courts, and the amounts vary widely. Most pensions, including those of police officers and federal employees, and other occupations, are subject to division in divorce cases.
Barnes said a number of changes to the law have been made in the favor of former spouses, and service members need some additional protections. For example, he said, if a former spouse is awarded a percentage of a service member’s retirement pay, that amount should be based on the member’s paygrade at the time of divorce, not pay at the time of retirement.