Navigating the Howell Decision: Understanding Its Impact on Military Divorces

Navigating the Howell Decision: Understanding Its Impact on Military Divorces

May 29, 2024

Navigating the Howell Decision: Understanding Its Impact on Military Divorces

Divorce is rarely a straightforward process, but when military retirement benefits are involved, the complexities can multiply. A landmark case that has significantly influenced how these benefits are treated in divorce proceedings is In re Marriage of Howell. This 2011 California Supreme Court decision has far-reaching implications for military families, particularly former spouses who may find themselves receiving less in retirement benefits than they initially expected.

Background of the Howell Case

In re Marriage of Howell centered around John Howell, a retired Air Force serviceman, and his ex-wife, Sandra Howell. When they divorced, the court awarded Sandra 50% of John’s military retirement pay. Years later, John opted to waive a portion of his retirement pay in favor of receiving veterans’ disability benefits, which are tax-exempt and provide financial advantages. This decision reduced the amount of retirement pay available to Sandra, prompting her to seek legal recourse.

The Legal Issue

The central issue in the Howell case was whether Sandra Howell should continue to receive her agreed-upon share of John’s total military retirement pay, including the portion he waived to receive disability benefits. Sandra argued that her share should not be reduced due to John’s post-divorce decision to waive retirement pay for disability benefits.

The Court’s Decision

The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of John Howell, referencing the federal Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA) and the precedent set by Mansell v. Mansell. The court held that:

  • Federal law preempts state law in this area, particularly regarding the division of waived military retirement pay.
  • The portion of military retirement pay that is waived to receive disability benefits cannot be treated as divisible community property in a divorce settlement.

Implications for Former Spouses

The Howell decision has profound implications for former spouses of military retirees, primarily in terms of financial security and planning:

  1. Reduction in Expected Benefits: Former spouses may receive less money in retirement benefits than initially expected if the service member waives a portion of their retirement pay to receive disability benefits. This reduction can significantly impact the financial well-being of former spouses who rely on these payments as part of their divorce settlement.
  2. Financial Uncertainty: The decision introduces a degree of financial uncertainty for former spouses, who may find their income reduced years after the divorce due to the service member’s decisions regarding retirement and disability benefits.
  3. Need for Detailed Divorce Agreements: To mitigate potential financial impacts, it is crucial for divorce agreements to be as detailed as possible. Provisions should address potential future waivers of retirement pay for disability benefits and how such decisions will affect the division of assets.
  4. Legal and Financial Planning: Former spouses must seek comprehensive legal and financial advice during divorce proceedings to understand the potential implications of military retirement and disability benefits. Legal professionals should ensure that former spouses are aware of the possible financial outcomes and include protective measures in the divorce decree where feasible.

Navigating the Complexities

Understanding the Howell decision is crucial for anyone involved in a military divorce. Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Pre-Divorce Planning: Service members and their spouses should engage in thorough financial planning before finalizing a divorce. This includes understanding the potential impact of waivers for disability benefits on retirement pay.
  • Legal Representation: Both parties should seek legal representation from attorneys who specialize in military divorces. These professionals can provide valuable insights and help draft detailed agreements that account for potential future changes.
  • Post-Divorce Adjustments: Former spouses should remain vigilant about any changes in the service member’s retirement status and seek legal advice if adjustments to the divorce agreement are necessary.


The In re Marriage of Howell decision underscores the complexity of dividing military retirement benefits in divorce and highlights the need for careful legal planning and advice. For former spouses, the ruling serves as a reminder of the potential financial vulnerabilities associated with military retirement pay and the importance of understanding how federal laws like the USFSPA impact their divorce settlements.

By navigating these challenges with informed legal guidance, former spouses can better protect their financial interests and ensure a more secure retirement, despite the complexities introduced by rulings such as Howell.

For those seeking expert legal representation in military divorces, Edgar & Dow stand out with their extensive experience and deep understanding of the unique issues involved. With over 30 years of dedicated service, Edgar & Dow are well-equipped to provide the specialized legal support needed to navigate the complexities of military divorce effectively. Their commitment to personalized client service and comprehensive legal strategies ensures that you receive the guidance and representation you need to secure a fair and equitable outcome. Trust Edgar & Dow to help you through this challenging process with professionalism and care.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

© Copyrights 2024 Edgar & Dow. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer | Privacy Policy
Digital Marketing by rizeup-logo