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.
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.
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, 720 P.2d 921, 925, cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1012 (1986).
In McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210 (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. We reasoned that Congress intended that military retirement pay reach the veteran and no one else. Id., at 228. 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. 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.
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).
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
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),
We noted probable jurisdiction, 487 U.S. 1217 (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 (1987); Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, 581 (1979). Thus we have held that we will not find pre-emption absent evidence that it is " `positively required by direct enactment.' " Hisquierdo, supra, at 581 (quoting Wetmore v. Markoe, 196 U.S. 68, 77 (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), that Congress sought to change the legal landscape created by the McCarty decision.
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's 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 pre-empts state law regarding military retirement pay.
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 (1984); Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108 (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
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:
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 purpose 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 (to prohibit garnishment is to prohibit division of property); Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (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.
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 (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.
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
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 (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
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR, with whom JUSTICE BLACKMUN joins, dissenting.
Today the Court holds that the federal Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act (Former Spouses' Protection Act or Act) denies state courts the power to order in a divorce decree the division of military retirement pay unilaterally waived by a retiree in order to receive veterans' disability benefits. The harsh reality of this holding is that former spouses like Gaye Mansell can, without their consent, be denied a fair share of their ex-spouse's military retirement pay simply because he elects to increase his after-tax income by converting a portion of that pay into disability benefits. On the Court's reading of the Former Spouses' Protection Act, Gaye Mansell will lose nearly 30 percent of the monthly retirement income she would otherwise have received as community property. I view the Court's holding as inconsistent with both the language and the purposes of the Act, and I respectfully dissent.
The Court recognized in McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, 235 (1981), that "the plight of an ex-spouse of a retired service member is often a serious one." In holding that federal law precluded state courts from dividing nondisability military retired pay pursuant to state community property laws, McCarty concluded with an invitation to Congress to reexamine the issue. Congress promptly did so and enacted the Former Spouses' Protection Act. Today, despite overwhelming evidence that Congress intended to overrule McCarty completely, to alter pre-existing federal military retirement law so as to eliminate the pre-emptive effect
In my view, Congress intended, by enacting the Former Spouses' Protection Act, to eliminate the effect of McCarty's pre-emption holding altogether and to return to the States their authority "to treat military pensions in the same manner as they treat other retirement benefits." S. Rep. No. 97-502, p. 10 (1982). See also id., at 1 ("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 (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"); id., at 5 ("[T]he committee intends the legislation to restore the law to what it was when the courts were permitted to apply State divorce laws to military retired pay"); id., at 16 ("The provision is intended to remove the federal pre-emption found to exist by the United States Supreme Court and permit State and other courts of competent jurisdiction to apply pertinent State or other laws in determining
Family law is an area traditionally of state concern, Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, 581 (1979), and we have not found federal pre-emption of state authority in this area absent a determination that "Congress has `positively required by direct enactment' that state law be pre-empted." Ibid. (quoting Wetmore v. Markoe, 196 U.S. 68, 77 (1904)). The Former Spouses' Protection Act does not "positively require" States to abandon their own law concerning the divisibility upon divorce of military retirement pay waived in order to obtain veterans' disability benefits. On the contrary, the whole thrust of the Act was to restore to the States their traditional authority in the area of domestic relations. Even beyond that restoration, Congress sought to provide greater federal assistance and protection to military spouses than existed before McCarty by creating a federal garnishment remedy in aid of state court community property awards. That, in fact, is the central purpose and preoccupation of the Act's complex statutory framework. The Former Spouses' Protection Act is primarily a remedial statute creating a mechanism whereby former spouses armed with state court orders may enlist the Federal Government to assist them in obtaining some of their property entitlements upon divorce. The federal garnishment remedy created by the Act is limited, but it serves as assistance and not, as the Court would have it, a hindrance to former spouses. Thus, the provision at 10 U. S. C. § 1408(a)(4)(B) (1982 ed. and Supp. V) of the Act defining "[d]isposable retired or retainer pay" to exclude "amounts waived in order to receive compensation under title 5 or title 38," and its incorporation into § 1408(c)(1)'s community property provision, only limits the federal garnishment remedy created by the Act. It does not limit the authority
This reading is reinforced by the legislative history, which indicates that "[t]he specific deductions that are to be made from the total monthly retired and retainer pay 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 (emphasis added). The Court finds that this statement "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)." Ante, at 592, n. 14. True, it is singularly unhelpful in supporting the Court's view that § 1408(c)(1) denies state courts authority to characterize retirement pay waived in lieu of disability benefits as community property. By contrast, it is helpful in determining why Congress chose to use "disposable retired or retainer pay" as the term limiting state court authority to garnish military retirement pay. In light of the fact that disability benefits are exempt from garnishment in most cases, 38 U. S. C. § 3101(a) (1982 ed., Supp. V), had Congress not excluded "amounts waived" in order to receive veterans' disability benefits from the federal garnishment remedy created by the Former Spouses' Protection Act it would have eviscerated the force of the anti-attachment provisions of § 3101(a).
To take advantage of the federal garnishment remedy, which provides for direct payment by the Government to former spouses in specified circumstances, former spouses must serve on the appropriate service Secretary court orders meeting certain requirements. In the case of a division of property, the court order must "specifically provid[e] for the payment of an amount, expressed in dollars or as a percentage of disposable retired or retainer pay, from the disposable retired or retainer pay of a member." 10 U. S. C. § 1408(a)
Subsection 1408(c)(1) authorizes the application of this federal garnishment remedy to community property awards by providing that "a court may treat disposable retired or retainer pay payable to a member . . . 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." (Emphasis added.) This provision should not be read to preclude States from characterizing retirement pay waived to receive disability benefits as community property but only to preclude the use of the federal direct payments mechanism to attach that waived pay. Nor do §§ 1408 (c)(2), (c)(3), and (c)(4) compel the conclusion that Congress intended to pre-empt States from characterizing gross military retirement pay as community property divisible upon divorce. Those three provisions indicate what States may "not" do. That Congress explicitly restricted the authority of courts in certain specific respects, however, does not support the inference that § 1408(c)(1) — an affirmative grant of power — should be interpreted as precluding everything it does not grant. On the contrary, it supports the inference that Congress explicitly and directly precluded those matters it wished to pre-empt entirely, leaving the balance of responsibility in the area of domestic relations to the States. In this respect, the Court mischaracterizes Gaye Mansell's argument as insisting that "the Act contemplates no federal pre-emption. . . ."
That States remain free to characterize waived portions of retirement pay as community property is unambiguously underscored by the broad language of the saving clause contained in the Act, § 1408(e)(6). That clause provides:
The Court explains that the saving clause "serves the limited purpose 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." Ante, at 590 (emphasis added). I agree. What I do not understand is how the Court can read the Act's saving clause in this manner and yet conclude, without contradiction, that California may not characterize retirement pay waived for disability benefits as community property. All California seeks to do is "divide and garnish property not covered by the [federal direct payments] mechanism." Ibid. Specifically, California wishes to exercise its traditional family
Under the Court's reading of the Act as precluding the States from characterizing gross retirement pay as community property, a military retiree has the power unilaterally to convert community property into separate property and increase his after-tax income, at the expense of his ex-spouse's financial security and property entitlements. To read the statute as permitting a military retiree to pocket 30 percent, 50 percent, even 80 percent of gross retirement pay by converting it into disability benefits and thereby to avoid his obligations
The conclusion that States may treat gross military retirement pay as property divisible upon divorce is not inconsistent with 38 U. S. C. § 3101(a) (1982 ed., Supp. V). This anti-attachment provision provides that veterans' disability benefits "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 beneficiary." Gaye Mansell acknowledges, as she must, that § 3101(a) precludes her from garnishing under state law Major Mansell's veterans' disability benefits in satisfaction of her claim to a share of his gross military retirement pay, just as § 1408(c)(1) precludes her from invoking the federal direct payments mechanism in satisfaction of that claim. To recognize that § 3101(a) protects the funds from a specific source, however, does not mean that § 3101(a) prevents Gaye Mansell from recovering her 50 percent interest in Major Mansell's gross retirement pay out of any income or assets he may have other than his veterans' disability benefits. So long as those benefits themselves are protected, calculation of Gaye Mansell's entitlement on the basis of Major Mansell's gross retirement pay does not constitute an "attachment" of his veterans' disability benefits. Section 3101(a) is designed to ensure that the needs of disabled veterans and their families are met, see Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619, 634 (1987), without interference from creditors. That purpose is fulfilled so long as the benefits themselves are protected by the anti-attachment provision.
In sum, under the Court's interpretation of the Former Spouses' Protection Act, the former spouses Congress sought to protect risk having their economic security severely undermined by a unilateral decision of their ex-spouses to waive retirement pay in lieu of disability benefits. It is inconceivable that Congress intended the broad remedial purposes of the statute to be thwarted in such a way. To be sure, as the Court notes, Congress sought to be "fair and equitable" to retired
It is now once again up to Congress to address the inequity created by the Court in situations such as this one. But because I believe that Congress has already expressed its intention that the States have the authority to characterize waived retirement pay as property divisible upon divorce, I dissent.
June Kazuko Inuzuka, Judith I. Avner, and Sally F. Goldfarb filed a brief for the Women's Equity Action League et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.
" `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).