McCarty v. McCarty
453 U.S. 210 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210 (1981)

McCarty v. McCarty

No. 80-5

Argued March 2, 1981

Decided June 26, 1981

453 U.S. 210

Syllabus

A regular commissioned officer of the United States Army who retires after 20 years of service is entitled to retired pay. Retired pay terminates with the officer's death, although he may designate a beneficiary to receive any arrearages that remain unpaid at death. In addition, there are statutory plans that allow the officer to set aside a portion of his retired pay for his survivors. Appellant, a Regular Army Colonel, filed a petition in California Superior Court for dissolution of his marriage to appellee. At the time, he had served approximately 18 of the 20 years required for retirement with pay. Under California law, each spouse, upon dissolution of a marriage, has an equal and absolute right to a half interest in all community and quasi-community property, but retains his or her separate property. In his petition, appellant requested, inter alia, that his military retirement benefits be confirmed to him as his separate property. The Superior Court held, however, that such benefits were subject to division as quasi-community property, and accordingly ordered appellant to pay to appellee a specified portion of the benefits upon retirement. Subsequently, appellant retired and began receiving retired pay; under the dissolution decree, appellee was entitled to approximately 45% of the retired pay. On review of this award, the California Court of Appeal affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that, because the federal scheme of military retirement benefits preempts state community property law, the Supremacy Clause precluded the trial court from awarding appellee a portion of his retired pay.

Held: Federal law precludes a state court from dividing military retired pay pursuant to state community property laws. Pp. 453 U. S. 220-236.

(a) There is a conflict between the terms of the federal military retirement statutes and the community property right asserted by appellee. The military retirement system confers no entitlement to retired pay upon the retired member's spouse, and does not embody even a limited "community property concept." Rather, the language, structure, and history of the statutes make it clear that retired pay continues to be the personal entitlement of the retiree. Pp. 453 U. S. 221-232.

(b) Moreover, the application of community property principles to military retired pay threatens grave harm to "clear and substantial"

Page 453 U. S. 211

federal interests. Thus, the community property division of retired pay, by reducing the amounts that Congress has determined are necessary for the retired member, has the potential to frustrate the congressional objective of providing for the retired service member. In addition, such a division has the potential to interfere with the congressional goals of having the military retirement system serve as an inducement for enlistment and reenlistment and as an encouragement to orderly promotion and a youthful military. Pp. 453 U. S. 232-235.

Reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and STEWART, JJ., joined, post, p. 453 U. S. 236.

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