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U.S. Supreme Court Rules On Arizona Military Divorce Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling in a military divorce case out of Arizona. The issue surrounded how and if an ex spouse should be reimbursed when a retired service member receives VA disability payments.

When John Howell and his wife Sandra divorced she was awarded half of his military retirement pay. At issue is a decision John made 14 years later when he applied for VA disability payments. Because disability benefits offset retirement pay and can’t be split through divorce settlements, Sandra’s monthly allotments decreased.

Lower courts had ruled that because John had other sources of income, Sandra’s allotment should not have decreased.

Mark Sullivan, a family law attorney who specializes in military divorce, said Monday’s ruling was surprising.

"The courts of most of the states have held that a former spouse is entitled to reimbursement when a retiree unilaterally acts without permission of the court or without consent of the former spouse to take VA disability compensation and then that reduces the pension share of the former spouse," Sullivan said. 

Sullivan said one way former military spouses could avoid financial losses in similar situations, is to address terms for reimbursement directly in the divorce settlement.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.