Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo
439 U.S. 572 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572 (1979)

Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo

No. 77-533

Argued November 1, 1978

Decided January 22, 1979

439 U.S. 572

Syllabus

The Railroad Retirement Act of 1974 (Act) provides retirement benefits for railroad employees. The benefits are not contractual and can be altered by Congress at any time. Benefits for an employee's spouse terminate upon an absolute divorce. 45 U.S.C. § 231d(c)(3). Except for satisfying child support or alimony obligations,

"no annuity [under the Act] shall be assignable or be subject to any tax or to garnishment, attachment, or other legal process under any circumstances whatsoever, nor shall the payment thereof be anticipated. . . ."

45 U.S.C. § 231m. Petitioner, a California resident whose years of service as a railroad employee entitled him to benefits under the Act if and when he attained age 60, petitioned for dissolution of his marriage to respondent, also a resident of California, which has a community property law. The trial court divided the parties' community property, but held that respondent had no interest in petitioner's expectation of receiving railroad retirement benefits. The Supreme Court of California ultimately reversed, holding that, because the benefits would flow in part from petitioner's employment during marriage, they were community property. The court rejected petitioner's contention that § 231m barred respondent's claim, reasoning that the provision was intended to apply to creditors only.

Held: Benefits payable under the Act may not be divided under the community property law. Pp. 439 U. S. 581-590.

(a) Ordering petitioner to pay respondent an appropriate portion of his benefits under the Act, or it monetary equivalent, as petitioner receives it, would contravene § 231m, and would deprive petitioner of a portion of the benefit Congress, in § 231d(c)(3), indicated was designed for the railroad employee alone. Under the Supremacy Clause, California must defer to the Act's statutory scheme for allocating benefits insofar as the terms of federal law require. Pp. 439 U. S. 583-587.

(b) An offsetting award for the expected value of respondent's interest in petitioner's statutory benefits would likewise defeat the purpose of barring the anticipation of payments under § 231m of the Act. Pp. 439 U. S. 588-590.

19 Cal.3d 613, 566 P.2d 224, reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ.,

Page 439 U. S. 573

joined. STEWART J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 439 U. S. 591.

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